By Olivia Pandolfi
From PHN Issue 42, Spring 2020
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are mobilizing to demand the release of incarcerated people. The prison system poses a legitimate public health threat because it is difficult to practice social distancing while incarcerated. As a result, the virus spreads quickly, usually after being introduced by a guard or other workers.
People with loved ones in prison and who want to abolish prisons have mounted phone zapping, letter-writing, tweet storming, and other campaigns to pressure officials to decrease the population of prisons and jails. These demands to release people often center aging, immune-compromised, and other vulnerable populations, but can extend to everyone. In many cities, car caravans or “drive-ins” have been organized to disrupt traffic and show support for decarceration measures while keeping participants safely distanced from one another in their cars. In these protests, people deck out their cars with signs and slogans such as FreeThemAll4PublicHealth and #FreeOurPeople, naming local officials to demand action.
Another kind of action is the movement of money and resources. The Inside/Outside Soap Brigade and Survived and Punished NY are helping organizations around the country send soap and other essential supplies to incarcerated people, and other mutual aid networks are mobilizing in similar ways. Hundreds of bail funds in the National Bail Fund Network have posted bail for people to get out of jail, with New York City’s Emergency Release Fund focusing specifically on transgender, gender nonconforming, or intersex folks.
An online map of COVID-19 cases behind bars created by activist journalists tracks confirmed cases as well as potential cases reported by people inside. The map is on the internet at COVID19BehindBars.com. The creators of this map are also planning to print and mail a newsletter for people in prison, with information on where COVID-19 outbreaks are happening in prisons, tips on protecting yourself from COVID-19, and hotlines to call if someone is sick in your facility. To request the newsletter, or to report possible cases of COVID-19 at your facility, write to Corcione Media LLC, P.O. Box 40062, Philadelphia, PA 19106.
People are taking important action from inside of prisons and immigrant detention centers, too. By mid-April, incarcerated people in at least eight states had begun hunger strikes to demand urgent action from the facilities where they’re held for cleaner conditions, better health care, and release. An estimated 3,000 incarcerated people across the country have participated in more than 75 protests, according to Perilous Chronicle, a digital media project. The majority of the hunger strikes have been in immigration detention centers, but inmates in Cook County Jail have also been refusing meals. Incarcerated people have also participated in protests, vigils, and actions held outside facilities’ doors by holding up signs to windows, making noise in concert with honking horns and shouting protesters outside, and recording phone messages about their experiences and stories that are played over speakers at mass actions.
Due to this pressure, people have been released from prisons, jails, and detention centers all over the country. As of mid-April, in at least 16 states, county jails have reduced their populations, some by as much as 30%.