We must challenge the societal conditioning that teaches us that incarcerated people in prisons and jails are unworthy of our compassion and care.
I’m a prison abolitionist in the best of times. On the United States’ best day, prisons, jails, and detention centers are horrifying embarrassments that make clear that the state is not ethical or just. Not only is the prison industrial complex completely inadequate in providing justice for the victims of harm and abuse, but those who are incarcerated are harmed daily during incarceration. That harm is only going to be exacerbated while we deal with a public health crisis of COVID-19’s magnitude.
We’ve seen the ways in which prisoners are neglected in natural disasters and extreme weather situations. During the polar vortex February 2019, more than one thousand inmates in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center were left without heat, hot water, power or medical care for more than a week.
The last thing incarcerated people need is a pandemic. Now, instead of being protected, incarcerated people are being exploited, forced to make hand sanitizer in one of New York’s prisons that they can’t even use themselves. And they’re only being paid an average of 65 cents an hour—confirmation that slavery was never really abolished in this country. If that’s not bad enough, there are plans in place for Rikers inmates to dig graves for people who die from complications with COVID-19. If you’re reading this incredulously, you honestly shouldn’t be surprised. This treatment of inmates is to be expected by a state as violent as the U.S.
Once the novel coronavirus reaches a prison, jail, or detention center, it will be a dire situation. In fact, it already is. An employee at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York has tested positive for COVID-19. According to Brittany White, Decarceration Manager for LIVE FREE National campaign at Faith in Action, “An issue of primary concern is cleanliness. Due to lack of consistent access to cleaning products—specifically bleach and disinfectant,” viruses like COVID-19 are able to run rampant. Not only are prisons and jails not prepared with the sanitation products needed to mitigate the spread of the virus, they aren’t communicating necessary information with inmates. “In speaking with my personal network, people had yet to be briefed about COVID-19. This includes not having a true understanding of what the symptoms consist of, or being aware of a plan in case the virus infiltrates the facility,” says White. Even if incarcerated people were aware of the precautions they needed to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and wanted to buy sanitation products for themselves, White says “they do not have the means to buy personal hygiene items and their cleanliness suffers.”
In these dire times, it is on us on the outside to organize and provide mutual aid for those who are incarcerated. White suggests contacting state governors and Bureau of Prison stakeholders to ask that incarcerated people be treated with dignity and respect. Demands could include the following suggestions by White:
Allowing inmates to remain in touch with loved ones: “Write them, engage them, check on your people. Those of us who have incarcerated loved ones are putting money on the phones, writing them, and engaging to ensure they have public oversight if something happens within the institution and so they feel as if they have a network of support.”
Get supplies to rural prisons: “Prisons are in rural areas intentionally. It is important to ensure these rural hospitals are equipped with the supplies they need to support an outbreak and that they have a plan in case one of the facilities has an outbreak.”
Donate to soap drives: “Ensure access to soap and hygiene products for all the incarcerated including soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant and lotion.”
Demand a moratorium on sick call fees and copays: “This is especially important because sick call fees come out of the personal money sent to you. Even if you do not currently have money on your books, it will be taken out of your account when you receive funds. This prohibits people from being able to purchase food to supplement inedible dining hall choices, personal hygiene products, or calling home to speak to their families.”
Remove the ban on bleach, hand sanitizer, and cleaning products: “Access to bleach and cleaning products by request. These items are restricted in facilities and can be extremely difficult to get access to.”
Educate inmates: “Medical professionals should visit all facilities and explain symptoms and best practices.”
Demand officials craft a plan of action if an outbreak occurs.
Demand release of vulnerable people and people held on bail: “Sign executive orders to release elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those held pretrial.”
Demand the release of everyone in solitary confinement: “Releasing everyone from solitary confinement will increase public oversight and support to ensure no one who is complaining of symptoms is ignored.”
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In times of crisis like this, it is imperative that we think of and protect the most marginalized people. Incarcerated people are so often left behind when we consider relief for a natural disaster, support during inclement weather, and now healthcare during global pandemics. Even if you’re not an abolitionist, I invite you to challenge the societal conditioning that has told us that incarcerated people in these prisons and jails are criminals unworthy of our compassion and care. Harming people who have caused harm, especially in times like these, is not justice. It is unnecessary cruelty. Considering the demographics of our prisons and jails, it could also be considered genocide.