“Our society created the framework for this atrocity just like the trenches of World War I created perfect incubation zones for the 1918 flu,” Truthout’s Kelly Hayes talks with Eric, an organizer with Oakland Abolition and Solidarity about the escalating COVID-19 outbreak at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, where some imprisoned people have launched a hunger strike over unsafe, unlivable conditions.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. By the end of the year, COVID-19 will be the third leading cause of death in the United States. In the wake of Trump’s defeat at the ballot box, people in the U.S. are grappling with the second wave of COVID-19, or in some cases, ignoring the problem and contributing to the spread. Some of us are lucky enough to work at home, while others are forced to mask up, sanitize and do their best to navigate the viral gauntlet. But tragically, some people in the U.S. are not allowed to take even the most minimal precautions to protect themselves from a virus that has already killed more than a million people. The plight of imprisoned people during the pandemic is not a popular discussion right now, but it is an essential one, which is why we will be devoting this episode, and some upcoming episodes, to the COVID-19 crisis in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers, and what we can do about it.
For those of us who are careful, who don’t leave home without a mask and a face shield, who use hand sanitizer every time we touch a surface outside, or who maybe even get our groceries delivered, it might be tough to imagine being trapped in a building where the virus is rampant, trying not to touch anything, knowing you don’t have hand sanitizer or soap. Now, imagine that the building is packed full of people, and a lot of them are sick, and you don’t have a mask. You can’t leave, or even decide where you’re going to stand or rest. The rooms are small and the hallways are narrow, and there is no way to keep your distance. The building is poorly ventilated and there’s black mold all over on the walls, so the longer you’re there, the more you’re hurting your lungs, making yourself more susceptible to the virus. It’s dark, it’s dirty, and you know the virus is hanging in the air and on surfaces throughout the building. People are getting sick. You can see them, you can hear them, but you can’t help them and you can’t leave.
That’s what life is like for people living in jails, detention centers and prisons during this pandemic.
I know a lot of you turn away from discussion of what’s happening in prisons even in the best of times. We have been conditioned to look away and to forget. We have also been conditioned to see ourselves as being different from imprisoned people. I have frequently heard people say, for example, that they don’t approve of the conditions or approve of the practices in U.S. prisons, but that the thing to do is not wind up there. “I wouldn’t do something to wind up in prison,” is something I have heard from people many times. So before we dive into today’s discussion of what’s happening in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, California, I want to say a few words about how we relate to the people inside.
I have no trouble relating to people inside prisons, but I know that’s not everyone. I don’t have any illusions that I am any better than people ensnared by the system. I have broken the law many times over the years, and not always for the sake of justice. I spent the better part of my 20’s grappling with a misdiagnosed mental illness, I was in and out of institutions, and I broke many, many laws. Eventually, I got the right diagnosis and the right medication and things started to change in a big way, but for nearly a decade, there were countless occasions on which I could have been sent to prison for the things I was doing, even though I was mostly only hurting myself. In my 30’s, which are now coming to a close, I have taken a lot of legal risks for the sake of causes I believe in, and I have been very aware of my proximity to incarceration during that time as well. I don’t really see a moral distinction between those different versions of me winding up dead in a cage, but I know the world does. I also know that people tend to exceptionalize activists, as though our criminalization is different, and we’re somehow better than other people who face charges. I believe, for example, that if I staged an act of protest today and went to prison, a lot of people would advocate for me. There would be a #FreeKelly campaign on Twitter, and I am not getting down on that, because I am extremely grateful and please do get me out if they ever come for me — seriously, I will be counting on you all. But please also understand that the Kelly in her mid-20s, who could not function in the world, who could not stop hurting herself, who experienced homelessness, who couldn’t hold down a job, whose mental illness made her hard to deal with — there would have been no campaign to free her, and she deserved to live too. One of my primary struggles during that time was an addiction to heroin. But after getting the right psych meds, it was infinitely easier for me to avoid hard drugs, so I was able to begin the process of rebuilding my life, and twelve years later, here I am, talking to you.
But that very lucky turn of events isn’t how most stories like mine end. Keeley Schenwar, for example, did not get her happy ending. Keeley was the beloved sister of one of my best friends, Maya Schenwar. Keeley was a vibrant, passionate person and she was brave. The stories Maya told me about Keeley when she was in prison and rehab, sticking up for other people who were being bullied or abused, or smuggling an injured animal into the facility to care for it, I felt like I knew her. And when we finally met, and I saw the joy in my friend’s eyes when she was able to put her arm around her sister at a party, in the free world, I thought I was seeing another story like mine — someone who had been kicked around by this world, but who was going to make it. I was so happy for my friend, and happy for Keeley. But it didn’t end that way.
Keeley’s memorial service was the last social event I attended before the pandemic. I watched my friend weep as she talked about Keeley’s love of animals, her kindness, and how brave she was in defending others. Keeley kept trying to get well, but she had been locked up so many times and endured so much violence, from the state, from people and also from the medical system.
There’s a lot of confusion in this country about treatment and care, as they relate to punishment and drug use, and this is especially important now as the Biden administration approaches. One thing Keeley and I agreed on was that what passes for treatment in the U.S. is usually just another form of incarceration. The conflation of punishment with treatment has led to a culture of violence against people criminalized for mental illness and addiction, and that culture manifests itself in many ways. It turns hospitals into prisons, and it sometimes conjures notions of “care” around torture facilities that don’t even attempt treatments of any kind. The California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran California is one such place. There is no treatment at Corcoran, or CSATF, as it’s often called. It is a brutal prison, through and through. There is also no meaningful activity of any kind for imprisoned people. There are no masks, there is black mold everywhere, there is no way for prisoners to physically distance themselves and COVID-19 is rampant.
We have so much to reckon with in this country, and even those who are inclined to embrace those reckonings may struggle to do so now, with COVID-19 beating down our doors. But we cannot abandon the people in those buildings. Our society created the framework for this atrocity just like the trenches of World War I created perfect incubation zones for the 1918 flu. Our society has built a system of millions of cages, where conditions were already so bad that years were being stripped years off of people’s lives, and we have shuffled people through that system. The United States created a system of disposal that’s now part of a perfect storm. Because while it may feel as though prisons exist in some state of separation from the rest of society, they do not. Guards are vectors, and they very effectively redistribute the disease in our communities. COVID-19 is being manufactured on a grand scale inside jails, prisons and detention centers. In the case of jails, people are being cycled in and out of their communities, causing further spread, but in all facilities, you have guards who are bringing the disease back to their neighbors and communities. In many cases, they are the only vectors.
There are countries that have emptied out entire prisons during this crisis. They didn’t do that because they discovered Mariame Kaba’s work and became prison abolitionists. They did it because they knew they could not afford to create manufacturing centers for the disease.
So these are just some things I want to ask you to think about as we hear from today’s guest, Eric, who is an organizer with Oakland Abolition and Solidarity. Because I know that a lot of you skip over stories about what’s happening in prisons, and you may even distance yourself emotionally from what’s happening inside, but I am asking you not to do that this time. I am asking you to empathize, and if you have trouble imagining yourself in their shoes, or relating to what they’re going through, think about me. Think about Keeley. And ask yourself what must be done, for the sake of the people locked in those cages, and for the sake of your own humanity.
KH: Today’s guest is Eric, who is an organizer with Oakland Abolition and Solidarity in Oakland, California. Oakland Abolition and Solidarity has been providing long term support for people trapped inside the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, which is the largest prison facility in the state of California. Eric, what can you tell us about what’s happening at the prison?
Eric: Cases at CSATF have been hovering around 500 positive cases for about three weeks. And we know that this is likely a kind of understatement of the crisis for two reasons. Basically one is that [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] CDCR moves cases to the quote “resolved” category after two weeks without retesting people. And the second reason is the rate of false negatives that we know about, even in testing on the outside. The yard in which the outbreak began, D Yard, there are two people on hunger strike, and today will be day 17 of that hunger strike. Toward the beginning of the outbreak, they were very fed up and shocked by the handling of the crisis by the institution. And they decided to take action.
KH: Whenever I talk to people experiencing a particular crisis in a prison, whether it’s a natural disaster or an outbreak of disease, I pretty much always hear that conditions were already very bad, and even potentially deadly, prior to whatever disaster unfolded. Can you tell us a bit about what people in CSATF were already up against?
E: Absolutely. Yeah. So there’s kind of two answers to that one being like the, before COVID “normal,” before this current outbreak. So before COVID, I mean, going back several years, there has been unresolved leaks, across this facility, and that’s something that Oakland Abolition and Solidarity has been tracking for a long time, as well as people’s various attempts to address that situation through grievances and legal means.
So tons of leaking across the facility, the hunger strikers are now housed, they were moved recently. They’re now housed in a leaky facility, and those leaky facilities almost always precipitate black mold. So that’s the kind of before COVID situation. After COVID, and I’ll get to this when I talk about their second demand, a little more, but basically prisons respond to crises by taking stuff away like that is. That is always their go-to solution and often their only solution. So despite the fact that guards are sort of constantly bringing COVID-19 in and out. In fact, in California, they’re like the sort of only possible vector, since visiting has been, there has been no visiting since the very beginning of the pandemic. And across various facilities, people like people have across the system lost access to programming, classes, anything like anything that the state will call rehabilitation, is basically gone down to bare minimum quality of life resources, which after this outbreak started in CSATF, had been curtailed even further.
KH: People talk about comorbidities and how you are more likely to die of COVID-19 if you have diabetes or various disabilities. We know there are many, many disabled and chronically ill people in prison, but the conditions you are describing really create their own potentially fatal vulnerabilities.
E: Yeah, absolutely. You know, before the outbreak, I mean prison in general, but the black mold specifically has basically rendered people immunocompromised across the facility in ways that are likely undiagnosed.
KH: So how are the people who are on hunger strike holding up?
E: Psychologically, remarkably well, sort of maintaining a lot of energy, a lot of regular communication and a lot of. A lot of spirit, a lot of like, they’re feeling the fight in, in a big way. Physically their health is taking a toll they’ve each, at least two of the three have developed a skin condition all over their body, which they attribute more to the poor air in the facility and to the lack of access to showers more than they do to the hunger strike itself. But you know, no doubt, that kind of a toll on the body isn’t helpful. And we know that not eating is likely taking a toll on their immune system. Which is especially scary considering that outbreak.
KH: So we know that a number of groups that are advocating for imprisoned people right now are making demands, and we will have links to some of that work in the show notes of this episode on our website, but I want to ask: what are the specific demands that the prisoners on hunger strike at CSATF are making?
E: The prisoners who were on hunger strike have made three demands of the facility, and then kind of one, one like big statement, which I’ll get to at the end, but these demands are also a helpful lens into what people across the facility are experiencing. So the first demanded universal and voluntary testing. So the institution has, since about the time of the beginning of the hunger strike, about 80 percent of the facility has been tested, but there are two issues with this. One is that people are often not given their own results until up to a week after testing. And two, very often tests are carried out very forcefully and violently, and without the kind of attention to consent that we would associate with like normal, regular medical professionalism. So this has led people across the facility to be sort of reticent to get tested and wary of being forced into circumstances where they’re tested and it’s in this sort of severely uncomfortable way. So this is why it’s like universal access to voluntary testing and not just universal testing, cause we know how these facilities treat or dehumanize people who it’s meant to be treating medically. Another reason this is important is because it’s like that having the information about one’s own status allows people to make actual decisions about their safety, about their distancing practices, about the ways that they engage with other people. The institution has been moving people a lot, around the facility in really, really inexplicable ways and ways that have demonstrably put people at risk and exposed new people to the virus. So people just having the basic knowledge about their own status in order to make those decisions for themselves, or at least to know what their risk level and risk factors are.
So yeah, pretty, pretty bare minimum.
KH: I have heard a lot of reports about that kind of moving around of prisoners you describe. Alan Mills, who’s with the Uptown People’s Law Center told a story on the show in April about how a prisoner in Stateville prison here in Illinois contracted COVID-19, and then somehow frustrated the staff while being quarantined, so they just put him in solitary, which led to everyone who was in solitary at that time contracting the virus. Like, this was an entirely predictable outcome and an undeniable act of violence.
E: Yeah, and so people have no control and often no knowledge of things like that happening.
KH: So what was the second demand that the hunger strikers are making?
E: So demand number two is to restore safe programming. Like we call programming basically anything that happens in prison that’s relatively positive. That’s like not sitting alone in a cell, so classes, rehabilitative activities, quote unquote “sports,” these are things that people have not had access to for a long time, but the sort of issue is beyond that. Like the first step towards safe programming is the restoration of like bare minimum quality of life stuff, like telephone calls with loved ones, regular access to showers and regular access to commissary stores and packages. And the stores and packages are survival necessities specifically because the food situation at CSATF is absolutely egregious. People are getting like tiny silver dollar pancakes and a radish for breakfast, a few crackers and some cheese for lunch, and a boiled potato for dinner. That’s like one little snapshot of a day’s worth of food at CSATF. So people have to, like for survival, supplement their diets with quarterly packages that they can get from families and supporters on the outside, and commissary, neither of which they have had access to for at least a month now.
KH: I don’t think most people who have not been incarcerated, or had a loved one incarcerated, understand the importance of commissary access. Prisons do not give people what they need to stay nourished, they do not give people what they need to stay warm — to even get a tiny fraction of their needs met, prisoners need commissary funds and access.
E: It is so unacceptable and, even when, oh, cleaning supplies, that’s the other thing. That’s one thing that after the hunger strikes started, and after we started to apply some pressure on the outside with phone zaps, we did see some return of access to cleaning supplies. Albeit like really watered down and really sporadic. But that’s another part of their demand that they have basically. And that’s, again, it goes back to like health autonomy, and like the ability of people to like keep themselves safe.
The third demand is mechanisms for transparency. So we’ve talked already about people needing to be informed of their own status when all this testing is happening. CDCR also needs to also be in regular communication with people inside and their families about what is going on about why, like, why these movements are happening.
Like we know that we know that early last week, several people with positive cases were moved into F yard. And they were there for about four hours and then moved out with the officials claiming that it was a mistake for them to have been there. But now there’s a huge outbreak in F facility where, where I know people whose loved ones now are positive for COVID. So no there’s been no accountability and no communication with people on the outside about what’s happening. So CDCR needs to explain these movements. And explain its overall plan for restoring better conditions and getting the outbreak under control. And we think that video visiting is a good way to create some actual transparency and visibility to what’s happening inside. It’s not likely that it’s safe to restore in prison visiting, although that’s an ultimate goal, video visiting will allow people to sort of safely communicate with their loved ones and report what’s happening.
KH: I think so many of us are in a constant state of anxiety. We have our masks, our hand sanitizer, our face shields, we get things delivered when we can, and we are avoiding other people like the plague because we think they might actually have the plague. What do you think those of us who are really caught up in our own fears and anxieties need to understand about how people in prison are experiencing this moment?
E: I think that it’s difficult to imagine how much being in prison can or does ratchet up the kind of paranoia that we’re just getting used to on the outside about the surfaces that we touch, about sanitizing our hands, about the people that we come in contact with. Imagine having no control. Imagine having no ability to be more than six feet away from someone, or no ability to control the amount of people and the sort of status of people that you’re exposed to on a daily basis. And this, in addition to all the other background conditions that we’ve described, so basically to know that you’re in this situation where COVID-19 is everywhere and have zero empowerment to do anything about it and to constantly held in that kind of precarity.
KH: I don’t think most people understand that submersion, that total evacuation of autonomy, and what that means when your environment is barbaric and in a constant state of deterioration.
E: Yeah, absolutely. And it is like, COVID-19 is just another kind of node in this systemic just the, the way that people’s autonomy is like absolutely violated and consistently violated by prison, like COVID-19 is just another aspect of that — like a new way for institutions to keep people scared disempowered and in danger.
KH: So there’s a new administration around the corner, and a lot of us are hopeful that we will finally see a coherent response to COVID-19 from the federal government. But unfortunately, the mass expansion of the prison industrial complex and the torturous conditions of the system were not invented by the Trump administration. The nightmarish system that created a perfect framework for incubating this disease has been a bipartisan project, and Biden and Harris have both been extreme purveyors of carceral violence. While I believe I will have a better chance of not dying of COVID-19 under a Biden administration, I am not sure how quickly anything will change for people inside the prison industrial complex, or if it will. Is there any real discussion among the prisoners about whether Trump’s exit will change anything for them, or are folks just kind of trying to survive the winter?
E: That’s a really good question. I think in a lot of ways people are just trying to survive the winter. I think the biggest danger of moving into a Biden administration is that people will be less apt to pay attention to things like this. And I think like there’s not to my knowledge, any signs of improvement. And I think like what new restrictions and safety measures we see on the outside, like it takes people looking really hard and creating accountability just to make sure they happen at all on the inside. And I think one of the talking points that the hunger strikers have been emphasizing is that if this were any other kind of situation where human beings were in danger, these facilities would be evacuated, would be like absolutely emptied out. Because they’re incubators of COVID-19, because they’re supercharging this pandemic that we’re supposedly contending with and supposedly trying to get rid of prisons, our prisons are amplifying that virus. So the call is to free them all and to evacuate these places. But yeah, there’s that, that often feels a long way off.
KH: It really can. But here, in this moment, I feel like we still have a lot of decisions to make, and that in each of those decisions, there is potential. Like the decision people made to listen to this entire podcast, even though this is a tough subject that they could easily sort of divide from themselves and dismiss. That’s a decision, and that decision might make something else possible, like them looking up y’alls website or checking out the show notes for ways to get involved, or even just reading up more on the subject. We all have so many choices to make that can lead us places, and that can lead us to people, people who share our values, or at least one value — one that’s enough to galvanize us. Because whatever else we all like or don’t like about each other, we are all locked in a battle over what life and death mean. And I think there are so many ways to show up for that fight, and advocating for the people this system is telling you to forget, is a really essential way to do that.
Things are going to get worse before they get better, and we know that, but trauma doesn’t always break people. When people work together to survive a crisis, and to keep other people alive during a crisis, it can strengthen their bonds, and their determination and their values. That could happen. Or we could become more insular, more detached from each other’s fates, and we could wind up setting up the lowest bar imaginable, because Trump, as a point of comparison, makes it very easy to do that. My feeling, in this moment, is that our choices, our organizing, and the things we make and share and build in this moment, will help drive those outcomes. We could come through this winter valuing life more, and valuing each other more, and making bigger demands than ever. We could, as my young friend Bresha Meadows says, “care more and more about what happens to people over time, not less and less.” I really think the way that we handle this crisis is going to dictate so much that comes after. So I am so grateful for everything that you all are doing, Eric, to support imprisoned people who are fighting for themselves right now. And really for all of us, because that’s a fight for all of our humanity.
E: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you so much for saying that. Yeah, I think, you know where the hope is, is in that notion of collective survival. And like, and we have to, like if we’re going to get through this and like you say, if we’re going to get through this with our humanity, I mean, we have to see people inside as, as us because they are us, and that’s something that so many people are sort of inculturated against. The dividing line between inside and out in this, is this well-maintained political force that, that keeps us from having this kind of solidarity or sense of collective survival. And, and I’m glad to see that there could be hope of breaking that down. And I appreciate you so much, you know, putting, putting this under the, under the magnifying glass.
KH: Well, if you all want to learn more about this struggle and what you can do to support, we are going to have some materials to check out on our website, so please do get involved, in whatever way that you can, and please remember that the crisis we are talking about today is just one of many, and that there is probably a similar crisis playing out at a facility near you. There may already be organizers like Eric, who are already working on it, whose efforts you can join. If not, there are a lot of tools and resources out there to learn from, in terms of how to support people who are trying to survive inside of jails, prisons and detention centers and we will hook you up with as much as we can in the show notes.
Eric, I want to thank you so much for joining us today.
E: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been, it’s been a real pleasure and an honor.
KH: And I want to say to anyone imprisoned in the path of this disease, if you can hear or ready this: we haven’t given up, and we won’t. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Can you make a call or send an email? Organizers with the Chicago Community Bond Fund are calling on the Cook County State’s Attorney and Chief Judge to take bold action to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail. Current incarceration rates and practices at the facility are putting thousands of people at risk, both in and outside the facility. You can find call-in and email scripts here.
Want to demand the release of people in ICE custody? Detention Watch Network’s #FreeThemAll: Toolkit to Support Local Demands for Mass Release of People in ICE Custody is a “working toolkit to help guide and support the work of organizations and individuals looking to demand the release of people in ICE custody.”
Want to take action? The American Friends Services Committee will be hosting a week of action to #FreeThemAll from December 10 through December 18 with events and actions for people to plug into across the country. Resources will also be available for people who would like to organize their action. You can learn more here.
Want to learn more about Oakland Abolition & Solidarity? You can read more about their work here.
Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law