Building a more humane future: Organizing for prison abolition during COVID-19

Infographic of COVID-19 infection rates in American cities and counties vs. in jails.
Jazmine Solorzano/Staff

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New York has been the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, with an infection rate of about 1.7%, about 4.5 times higher than that of the country as a whole. However, possibly the biggest hot spots in the country are not the state or New York City itself, but rather the incarcerated population of New York. Some New York jails have been reported to have infection rates as much as 80 times the infection rate of the United States, while the infamous Rikers Island jail complex has an infection rate more than 4.5 times higher than New York City does, according to The Legal Aid Society. These numbers raise concerns about infection rates and health conditions in detention facilities across the country, where, in total, 2.3 million people are incarcerated.

What will happen to these people during the pandemic? As of 2017, more than 13% of incarcerated individuals in the United States were older than 55. According to a Prison Policy Initiative report, 74% of people held in jail are in pretrial detention and have not been convicted of a crime, resulting in jails that are overcrowded, in part because some people simply can’t afford bail. An incarcerated pregnant woman, Andrea Circle Bear, already lost her life to COVID-19. There are immunocompromised people and people with other underlying health conditions in prisons, jails and detention facilities across the country. While most of the country has the option to shelter in place and self-quarantine, incarcerated people do not.

To many activists and community organizers, the answer to what should happen to prisoners during the pandemic is clear: Free as many people as possible, and prioritize safe and humane treatment to stop the spread of COVID-19 inside the nation’s detention facilities. In fact, some organizations have been oriented toward the goal of freeing incarcerated people in the United States since long before the current crisis.

“COVID-19 has revealed the many cracks in the American infrastructure,” says Tomiko Shine, founding director of Aging People in Prison Human Rights Campaign, or APP-HRC. What this has shown about incarceration, she continues, is that it is “just too massive to sustain anymore.” Shine points to not only the economic costs of keeping such a large prison system running but also the human costs to families, some of whom see two or three generations of people locked up at the same time. APP-HRC works to remedy some of this damage, seeking compassionate release for incarcerated older individuals, many of whom have been imprisoned for the majority of their lives.

“COVID-19 has revealed the many cracks in the American infrastructure.” — Tomiko Shine

The heavy toll mass incarceration has taken on communities in the United States is one reason the prison abolition movement has grown significantly over the last few decades. Prison abolition is the idea that rather than reform prisons and jails to make them less dangerous, the very existence of an incarceration system is inhumane. Under an abolitionist framework, the ultimate goal is to have a society that does not lock people away at all, but that instead has other systems in place to support rather than punish and to implement justice that is restorative rather than punitive.

While prison abolition originally seemed like an extreme or overly idealistic position to many in mainstream society, over the past few years, it has begun to gain more traction in public discourse. With the current crisis, mass releases, decarceration and other abolition-oriented strategies seem not only reasonable but necessary to many who see the U.S. prison system as a ticking time bomb for the pandemic.

“The pandemic has really revealed just how dangerously overcrowded our prisons are, and it created a new urgency to create avenues to bring people home,” says James King, state campaigner for the Ella Baker Center in Oakland. While the Ella Baker Center focuses on both supporting activism in the Oakland area and advocating for policy changes at the state level, King says his goals have shifted during the crisis, from focusing on long-term legislation aimed at reducing incarceration to actions that would bring more immediate relief.

According to King, under current law, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has the authority to release individuals, while district attorneys can recommend people for resentencing. Gov. Gavin Newsom can also issue pardons and commutations, which he has done, but in relatively small quantities (five pardons and 21 commutations since the start of the crisis). King and the Ella Baker Center are working to increase the number of people that are released.

“The pandemic has really revealed just how dangerously overcrowded our prisons are, and it created a new urgency to create avenues to bring people home.” — James King

For many residents of Alameda County, the question of what will happen to people incarcerated during the pandemic is one that is close to home. Alameda County is home to Santa Rita Jail, the fifth largest jail in the country. The jail has been plagued for years with accusations of misconduct and abuse, and it has faced increased public scrutiny with the spotlight the COVID-19 crisis is putting on jails and prisons.

The Ella Baker Center, which has been at the forefront of a campaign calling for an audit of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, or ACSO, for the past few years, has started a new project called the Santa Rita Jail Watch, or SRJW. The goal of SRJW is to track COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail and provide updates on the jail’s status and on actions by the ACSO. The center’s most recent call to action has been protesting a budget proposal by Sheriff Gregory Ahern to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors that would give the ACSO a budget increase of $318 million over the next three years. The proposed budget increase would bring the total in 2021 to be almost half a billion dollars, about which King comments, “People were rightly outraged by that, and met the moment and came together to say that this is not a justification or a reason to build institutions that are further oppressing people and harming them in the midst of this pandemic.”

Sgt. Ray Kelly, public information officer for the ACSO, claims that this budget increase is necessary despite the ongoing pandemic and resulting decreased jail population. “When COVID-19 is over and we get through the pandemic and this very difficult time, those jail numbers will go back up, and may go back up even higher,” Kelly says. “We have said for years and years and Sheriff Ahern has said for years and let the board supervisors know that the jail is understaffed, underfunded. We need more mental and behavioral health clinicians and programs there because we’re dealing with a population that suffers greatly from those concerns.”

Local organizing groups, including the organization previously known as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, Oakland, disagree. Lina García, of the formerly named IWOC Oakland and the newly formed coalition Santa Rita Jail Solidarity, or SRJS, claims that regardless of what the sheriff’s office claims the money will be used for, there is a “culture of cruelty” in the jail that additional funding will not be able to fix. “Even when care is provided to the letter,” she alleges, “it doesn’t change the fact that it’s dehumanizing and cruel.” Examples of this treatment, García alleges, include forcing people who are in isolation due to COVID-19 symptoms to kneel on the floor to have their temperature checked through meal tray slots twice a day and delays in processing requests for “basic comfort” such as extra blankets for sick individuals, if they are granted at all.

IWOC Oakland was initially formed as a chapter of the national IWOC, an organization started by the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW. The Oakland organization coordinates advocacy efforts and publicizes issues raised by prisoners inside the local jail. It also organizes other support efforts including Jail Release Support Nights, where members and volunteers arrange rides and food for people who are released from Santa Rita at hours when public transit is not available. The Oakland chapter recently released a statement that it has split from the rest of the IWOC and IWW, but has yet to announce a new name for the independent organization.

Initially formed by IWOC Oakland members, SRJS is a recently named collective. The group is an attempt at increased collaboration and communication among people in different aspects of prisoner support. Members include community organizers, lawyers, family members and prisoners themselves. SRJS recently launched a website, which it describes as “a resource for testimonies directly from people currently or formerly incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail, or from their family members and loved ones.” The website features testimony pages attributed to people currently incarcerated in Santa Rita. These testimonies focus primarily on conditions inside the prison during the COVID-19 crisis. Allegations from the testimonies include testing not being provided to inmates experiencing coronavirus-related symptoms, lack of social distancing and inadequate personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Complaints about conditions in Santa Rita are not new, and they were recently highlighted in a collective grievance filed by Santa Rita inmates that alleged “unconstitutional and inhumane conditions of confinement.” The grievance, published in the first Santa Rita Jail bulletin by the former IWOC Oakland, is said to have been delivered March 16 to jail staff and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. This is not the first collective action undertaken by prisoners at Santa Rita, either. Last November, about 400 inmates staged a one-day hunger strike and an on-and-off work stoppage in response to neglect and abuse allegations, which included claims regarding an unsanitary environment, forced labor and lack of access to adequate medical care and legal resources, among other conditions, in the jail.

The ACSO has vehemently denied all of these allegations, claiming that prisoners are not maltreated. In a recent interview, Kelly claimed that any neglect or lack of access to medical or mental health care is due to underfunding, citing a report conducted as part of ongoing litigation in Babu v. Ahern, a legal case against Ahern about the Santa Rita COVID-19 response. In response to the allegations surrounding the COVID-19 situation in the jail, Kelly denounces them as “absolutely false,” noting that at the time of our conversation, there were only six active COVID-19 cases in the jail and 29 recoveries. “If we were not keeping it clean,” he claimed, “we would have massive outbreaks in our jail.”

“That’s scientific fact,” Kelly concluded.

Kelly further claimed that because the Santa Rita population is now at just under 1,800 inmates, a decrease of more than 700 since the beginning of March, the jail is operating with enough space to prevent the overcrowding problems other jails have faced.

Advocates with the SRJS and former IWOC Oakland, however, continue to dispute the ACSO’s reports of conditions in the jail, arguing that without increased oversight, it’s impossible to know the truth about conditions within the jail, particularly given the history of allegations of poor conditions and mistreatment that have continued to conflict with statements from the sheriff’s office. The former IWOC Oakland and the Ella Baker Center have both launched campaigns against the proposed budget increase to the ACSO as well, seeing it as a grab for additional funds to expand the system of incarceration rather than attempting to decarcerate, as has been necessary during the pandemic and which these organizations see as a step in the right direction.

Jails and prisons aren’t the sole focus of abolition-oriented groups. Another Bay Area group, the Oakland-based Asian Prisoner Support Committee, or APSC, is an organization that has its roots in working with people in prison. Over time, the organization has branched out into organizing around a multitude of issues related to incarceration that affect Asian and Pacific Islander communities. A main focus recently has been immigration and working to prevent deportations, an issue that heavily impacts many Asian communities. According to co-Director Nate Tan, the APSC is sponsoring a policy bill, called the Vision Act, that aims to end collaboration and contact between jails and prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in California, with the ultimate goal of stopping the nonmandatory practice of transferring prisoners who have reached the end of their sentences directly to ICE for deportation.

APSC also recently started the “Flatten ICE” campaign, which, Tan explains, “was a direct response to COVID. If our government is telling us we need to flatten the curve, shelter in place, stay home, that includes the safety of people inside.” Flatten ICE calls on community members to make phone calls to ICE demanding the release of at-risk individuals in ICE custody. According to its Call-In Action Guide, ASPC has worked in collaboration with other groups to secure the release of nine people so far.

This strategy of making mass phone calls to an agency, or “phone zaps,” is a popular one among abolitionist organizations. Mass emailing and social media campaigns also often accompany the phone zaps. While these strategies have always been useful, they’ve become even more so given the limitations facing organizers due to shelter-in-place mandates. Car-based protests, with people forming car caravans outside jails, detention centers and other government buildings, have also become increasingly useful to protest while following social distancing guidelines. While shelter in place has created an environment in which many are more plugged in digitally and have more time to participate in actions than they ordinarily would, García says, “a lot of people are feeling paralyzed and frustrated.”

Even given the challenging conditions now, though, the urgency of the moment is motivating many people to get involved in supporting incarcerated people. King says he has seen “a groundswell of support” and shifting public opinion around reducing incarceration. At APP-HRC, Shine says, many people who have been cut off from visitations with their loved ones due to the pandemic have begun getting involved with organizations centered around decarceration. Public opinion and momentum seem to be shifting, necessitating new strategies that were not seen as realistic until the current crisis.

Even given the challenging conditions now, though, the urgency of the moment is motivating many people to get involved in supporting incarcerated people.

COVID-19 is a horrific and ongoing crisis. It has acted as a wake-up call to our country as to how unsustainable our system of incarceration is, and organizations are reorienting themselves and forging new collectives and coalitions to try to create new paths forward.

“Now the world has no choice,” Shine says. “With this type of pandemic, you have to look at the future. What if this happens again? And when this happens again, how are we going to address this?”

Shine has hope for the future, though. Despite the tragedy of the current crisis, she sees more collaboration between different people and organizations coming together. Rather than the siloed responses different prison reform and abolitionist organizations have had in the past, working together to decarcerate — not only to save lives now but to prevent this from happening again — may be the start of creating a more sustainable future.

“A lot of systems are going to have to transform, are going to have to become more humane,” Shine says. “This is the ultimate goal, to create a humane society where prison isn’t overwhelming us all.”

Contact Saya Abney at [email protected].