Covid-19 is out of control behind bars
“A Nazi Germany death camp.”
"It’s fixin’ to be a mass grave site."
“I may never see my family again.”
These are terrifying reactions from prisoners in detention facilities around the country.
Once again Black and Brown people must fight for their lives. Only an aggressive, informed, coordinated, multi-racial, non-partisan strategy will get us through this pandemic.
One of the scariest places to be during the COVID-19 crisis is behind bars. The Marshall Project has a weekly state by state report on coronavirus amongst jail populations. From available testing data, about 20,119 people in prisons have tested positive for the virus. The website’s disturbing charts show the exponential growth of the virus since the first death in the system in late March. In Ohio’s Marion prison, 76% of the inmate population tested positive for the virus. All institutions aren’t testing; all institutions aren’t reporting the testing results.
I always remind the public that facilities like Rikers Island in New York, Cook County Jail in Chicago, or the Medium Security Institution (aka The Workhouse) in St. Louis are not facilities where people have been convicted of a crime and sentenced. Sadly, 80-85% of detainees are there because they can’t afford bail. They wait for release or to go before a judge for arraignment. While some will be detained for months - even years - most will be released in days or weeks. That’s why aggressive COVID-19 testing of jail populations is critical; these loved ones will be returning to their families.
Groups like The Justice Collaborative were already monitoring the spread of coronavirus outside the walls weeks before the first known death inside the walls. They understood it was only a matter of time before these holding facilities would become breeding grounds for the virus.
In early April, a report was issued by the Collaborative and Data for Progress with recommendations to reduce jail populations. These include bumping up early release of those with scheduled out-dates, release of non-violent inmates, release of defendants with medical issues, or prosecutors dismissing charges against low-level defendants. Many of the options showed significant bi-partisan support.
Like the rest of the U.S., jail and prison authorities were slow to institute protective measures. Protocols such as social distancing or frequent hand washing are nearly impossible. The pandemic is ravaging through this vulnerable population without regard to inmate or guard. Those stuck in these cages have little control over their lives. This virus has coughed up a set of new challenges for those packed and stacked inside an inhumane system mired in brutality and racism. Fear has rapidly turned into anger. The rage of prisoners and their loved ones has reached the boiling point. They desperately need our support.
Those with relative freedom must step up our efforts to eliminate cash bail. We must demand testing of all those held in jails and prisons. We must demand early releases of all those who pose no threat to themselves or others, especially the elderly and those with medical issues which put them at risk for COVID-19. Consciously organizing to decarcerate moves us closer to the abolition of the prison industrial complex.
Right now, Black and Brown people are in yet another fight of our lives. Only an aggressive, informed, coordinated, multi-racial, non-partisan strategy will get us through this pandemic. We will have to fight for jobs tomorrow but today, we must fight to save lives.
The Black Commentator