Prisons in a time of pandemic: Protect our loved ones inside

It’s time to Free ‘Em All – or as many prisoners as we can! For loved ones coming home to the Bay Area, this should be one of their first stops. Dorsey Nunn of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and All of Us or None, second from right, has wisely purchased this building at 4400 Market St. in West Oakland, now called the Freedom and Movement Center, and made it home to a number of programs to help returning prisoners make a successful transition and become leaders in their communities. In the photo, taken Sept. 1, 2019, are, from left, Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah, Noe Gudino, Tina Nunn, Erroll Veron, Ivana Gonzales, Dorsey Nunn and Azadeh Zohrabi. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

by Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and co-founder of All of Us or None

I was incarcerated in San Quentin when a flu epidemic ripped through the prison. You could literally see and hear it coming. Think of an airplane hangar, within which a five-story wall of four-and-a-half-by-10-foot cells stretches hundreds of feet long, caging hundreds of fathers, brothers and sons.

You hear the man at the far end of the block and a couple levels down start coughing hard. He’s blowing his nose, coughing up phlegm and spitting it out. Hopefully into the toilet.

Then the cat next to him starts coughing. Then the person above that one. Then the CO walking the tier is coughing hard while passing every cell. Every day, every hour, you can hear the sickness coming towards you. And there’s not a damned thing you can do about it.

While there’s a foot of concrete between you and your neighbor, between you and the wide-open space filled with sickness are just 14 steel bars and a whole lot of air. In the dining hall, we’re packed together, sharing trays and food. 

Sure there’s a “hospital,” but, given the history of inadequate medical care, infected people have few real options. We have been aware that the prison population has been aging for decades, so it should surprise no one that they are at the greatest risk.

Give each person inside a cell phone to keep in free, constant contact with their family.

While my experience at San Quentin happened decades ago, the prison itself hasn’t changed. People are still crammed into cages. There’s a larger, more modern medical ward, but there are exponentially more people incarcerated there, too. 

And a larger staff of COs (correctional officers) is rotating in and out all day – currently only being “asked” if they have symptoms of the virus. No testing. But our families, neighbors and friends are being treated as if they’re vectors of deadly diseases, and they’ve had all their visits cancelled.

You can’t isolate the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the whole country from each other, and, in reality, from the rest of the community.

What are our options?

We demand the immediate release of people most vulnerable, starting with people over 50 and people with medical conditions. Also release people who are near the end of their sentence so, as with the current Alternative Custody Program, they can be with their families during this crisis. This also results in creating more space inside prisons.

We demand prison and jail staff take all necessary precautions to protect the people currently incarcerated. Test everyone – especially the COs and deputies rotating in and out of the facilities multiple times a day. Provide real health care. And be open and transparent about both conditions and practices. People die in darkness.

We demand direct, cost-free contact with family members. Stop charging a dime for calls, emails or letters. Outside, we’re up in arms when people exploit the vulnerable by jacking up the prices of sanitizer, soap, toilet paper and other necessary supplies. 

But prison and jail canteens price-gouge on a daily basis, and everyone’s OK with that? Telecom companies, JPay and Departments of Corrections across the country have been holding incarcerated people and our family members hostage for profit for decades. It’s time to stop this immoral practice of putting profit over people. CDCR recently announced free calls for a week – a good start but not enough. 

Give each person inside a cell phone to keep in free, constant contact with their family. Our families could better manage our resources; everyone will benefit.

Now is an extraordinary opportunity to strategically release the elderly and the most vulnerable people into restorative justice programs in their own communities. We can beat this global pandemic by starting with saving the most vulnerable in our society – our people in prisons in jails. 

Call on your local sheriff and state DOC secretaries to protect our people and keep our families together. Now is truly a time of All of Us or None.

Dorsey Nunn, who was himself formerly incarcerated, is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a founder of All of Us or None, an activist organization of formerly incarcerated people. He can be reached at dorsey@prisonerswithchildren.org or at LSPC, 4400 Market St., Oakland, CA 94608, 415-625-7056.