Prioritizing prisons, police and punitive responses to
social issues is a public health crisis. These approaches are only aggravated
by the global coronavirus pandemic. Incarcerated people, whether they are in
jails, prisons or migrant detention centers, are facing down death sentences in
overcrowded facilities with limited access to sanitation as the virus spreads.
Those who find themselves under these mutated
forms of social and racial control stemming from white supremacy and
colonialism are actively being put in harm’s way. In response, detainees across
the globe are rightfully resisting in the face of deadly conditions.
As the pandemic
spreads, support grows to free all incarcerated people–at higher danger from
infection and death. Here a 150-car caravan wheels through Philadelphia, April
Wherever you see incarcerated people lifting their
voices and rising up for their survival, we see state repression. Prisons
officials are using force in response to work strikes, hunger strikes and other
forms of protest. Prisons are deliberately not designed with health in mind,
and we are seeing some facilities respond to virus symptoms by separating
infected people from overcrowded general populations into “segregation” or
solitary confinement. By United Nations standards prolonged solitary
confinement is torture.
People need decarceration, health care and humane
housing, not punishment. It is imperative we listen to those affected: “Jail
and prison walls can’t contain the spread of the virus. What is on the outside
will be on the inside, and what happens to our communities on the inside will
affect us all.” (Free Them All Connecticut)
Rebellions break out
Prisoners in the large Yakima County (Washington
state) jail righteously rose up on March 23 in rebellion over being huddled
together during the COVID-19 epidemic. Fifteen prisoners escaped.
After 6 inmates tested positive for the COVID-19 virus
at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington state facilities 30 miles
northeast of Seattle, on April 9, 200 prisoners rebelled. Police, including
state troopers, fired “blast balls” and pepper spray on the protesting
prisoners. Eighteen prisoners were put in “segregation.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has done nothing to stop
the strain of overcrowding in state prisons, despite warnings from all health
officials, including the World Health Organization.
After one inmate tested positive at the Women’s Prison
in Pierre, S.D., in late March, nine prisoners, including six who are
Indigenous, successfully fled the fatal facility. The warden of the
prison has resigned, and while seven prisoners have been apprehended, two
remain at large. (U.S. News & World Report, April 3)
Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas saw prisoners
rebel after 12 of them and 16 guards tested positive for COVID-19. Prisoners
swept through offices, broke windows and chairs, and set small fires in the
facility before being corralled back under control. (Guardian, April 10)
In a video of the uprising taken on a contraband cell
phone and circulated online, guards were shown locked out of a section of the
prison, while prisoners voiced their fears of the virus and concerns over the
lack of health care. Corizon Health and the state of Kansas have been locked in
a battle over the prison’s health care contract with the state. (KMBC News,
No human being is illegal on stolen land!
Migrants in detention in Immigration and Customs
Enforcement processing facilities are facing the same fears about the virus as
those in jails and prisons. At least four ICE processing facilities in the last
week of March alone saw detainees peacefully protest against potentially lethal
conditions with work and hunger strikes.
The ICE processing facilities include Aurora Contract
Detention Center in Denver; the South Texas Processing Center in San
Antonio; and Lasalle and Pine Prairie facilities in Louisiana. Those demanding
humane conditions and/or their release were met with guards in riot gear, using
pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse protesters into separate
facilities. (Buzzfeed News, March 24)
Over 350 people at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia
went on a hunger strike on March 24. One Mexicana detainee, Ventura
Quintanar-Rico, 32, said, “We’re just waiting to get infected! They’re not
taking the most basic coronavirus precautions at this place. If one of us gets
infected, all of us will, we are not able to stay 6 feet apart. We share space
with 62 other people. We don’t want to die. It usually takes three to four days
to get medical attention here.” (Mijente, March 27)
Under racial and social state control, like many
incarcerated people in jails, most migrants have not been lawfully convicted of
anything. People held in ICE processing facilities often have come through
ports of entry and applied for asylum, currently considered a legal route.
Though the law has been used to codify and uphold systems of white supremacy
and colonialism, no human being is illegal on stolen land!
protest ban on visitors at Poggioreale prison in Naples, Italy, March 8.
The U.S. has exported its punitive prison system to at
least 38 countries, according to the Alliance for Global Justice. Colombia saw
at least 13 prison uprisings in the face of the coronavirus, leaving 23 dead.
From inside La Picota, a Bogotá prison, inmate Oscar Sanchez, 42, called the
clashes between prisoners and authorities “a massacre that until now has taken
more lives than coronavirus in Colombia.” Hundreds of prisoners escaped after
uprisings in four São Paulo facilities after Brazilian state officials
suspended temporary leave permits for 34,000 inmates. (New York Times, March
Governors, Grant clemency from coast to coast!
The fears driving these righteous rebellions are
grounded in heartbreaking reality. The rate of coronavirus infection at Rikers
Island in New York City and Cook County Jail in Chicago are among the highest
in the world, with nearly 300 confirmed cases at Rikers and 400 confirmed cases
in Cook County. (tinyurl.com/s9q27g6) Advocates and abolitionists have been
warning officials against this very outcome in the early stages of the
pandemic, only to be met with inaction from officials.
From coast to coast, governors in the U.S. have the
power to grant mass clemencies or reprieves. Instead New York Gov. Andrew
Cuomo is banking that the masses of people do not care about those caged. New
York continues to exploit prison labor to produce PPE and hand sanitizer. They
are also paying prisoners less than the minimum wage to dig mass graves on Hart
Island while continuing to incarcerate new people.
To avoid genocide we need mass releases without
exceptions and without ankle monitors or fines. The people in cages staring
down the barrel of execution by virus are waking to the reality that they have
very little to lose in resisting their conditions. The prison industries that
profit off these deplorable conditions are willing to kill while trying to
squeeze every last dime out of caged labor.
The generative project of prison abolition that would
transform social relations while meeting human needs is coming, whetherthe prison-industrial system is ready or not.
Jim McMahan contributed information about the
rebellion at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state.