by Urszula Wislanka
Nearly forgotten in the horror of COVID-19 are prisoners, an aging population forced together in overcrowded prisons with no ability to practice “social distancing” or even wash adequately. The prisons are rightly called “death camps” by former prisoners. One, Theresa Grady, now with Center for Justice at Columbia University, called them that in #ClemencyCoast2Coast virtual town hall held on April 8.
In one of many actions across the country, activists from New York and California have joined to call for release of all prisoners at risk of dying from COVID-19. Many local jails have started de-populating, yet even this small gesture seems to be stuck in limbo for state prisons.
When New York Gov. Cuomo promised to release 400 prisoners, it didn’t happen. Raymond Rivera, sent back to Rikers Island on a minor parole violation, died from COVID-19 on April 4.
Similarly, in March, California Gov. Newsom commuted the sentence of 21 prisoners, whose paperwork was already in the system. He announced 3,500 prisoners already with parole dates might be released within 60 days. Given California’s prison population of 123,000 in a system designed for 85,000, that is way too little and too late.
Nearly forgotten in the horror of COVID-19 are prisoners, an aging population forced together in overcrowded prisons with no ability to practice “social distancing” or even wash adequately. The prisons are rightly called “death camps” by former prisoners.
One of the speakers at the town hall, Ny Nourn, was released from prison only to be held in an ICE detention camp. “Health care” in those camps is devastating. Under current conditions, ICE detention is a death sentence, she said.
On April 10 more than 100 prisoners at Mesa Verde detention camp went on a hunger strike. They demand immediate release or ways to protect themselves from the virus. There are at least six other facilities in which prisoners are on on-going hunger strikes from Essex County facility in New Jersey to Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.
Also on April 10, prisoners in Lancing, Kansas, where there is an outbreak of the virus, staged an uprising.
Another speaker at the town hall, James King, an ex-lifer now with Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, released just four months ago, said, “We have to break our addiction to incarceration.” Speaking of his release, after having been found suitable, he said, “I am not an exception; I am a reflection” of the changes many others have also accomplished while in prison.
Barbara Chavez, sentenced to life without a possibility of parole for someone else’s violence in domestic violence, stressed that mass clemency is a good policy in the face of the realities in prison.
Jose Saldana, an organizer with RAPP (Release Aging People from Prison), served 38 years in prison in New York. He said the average age of people who die in New York’s prisons is 57. Many who are worthy of release will die in prison. The only humanitarian solution is mass de-carceration, with the oldest prisoners released first.
Additionally, speakers noted that the vast majority of those in prison are people of color. That’s who will die in disproportionate numbers. LA’s Black population is 5 percent; in prisons it’s 40 percent.
The culture in prisons does not allow guards to see prisoners as human. They would not be able to do their jobs if they did. It’s making them victims as well. They don’t ask for masks and disinfectants for prisoners’ use, even if it would be in their own interest.
#ClemencyCoast2Coast campaign resulted in over a thousand people flooding Gov.’s Cuomo’s and Newsom’s social media accounts with messages and pictures calling for mass clemency on April 3 and again on April 10.
The town hall’s conclusion was that this pandemic has exposed all that is wrong with the system. There is no saving it. It will have to be changed from the bottom up.
Urszula Wislanka, a revered organizer with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, Prisoners Hunger Strike Solidarity and the Institute for Critical Study of Society, wrote this primarily for publication in News and Letters; it is republished with permission. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.