• March 7th, 2021
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THE INCARCERATION PANDEMIC

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in prisons all over the world (making international headlines), but U.S. infection rates have consistently topped the charts. The United States carceral state has been on full display in 2020. Prisons have been cut off from the outside world and physical distancing recommendations from the CDC have been ignored.

As the year comes to a close, between 250,000 and 500,000 prisoners of the U.S. judicial system have tested positive for COVID-19, well over 10 percent of the 2.3 million human beings incarcerated here. This while prisoners are being paid $1 an hour to fight wildfires in California and $2 an hour to transport bodies for an overrun morgue in Texas. Not to mention, being paid pennies to sew together U.S. flags. In addition, prisoners are forced to work the jobs that run the prisons with no basic protections and still no compensation in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Political officials, with the tool of executive clemency at their disposal, can play a major role in remedying the pandemic’s impact inside, and fundamentally altering the prison system at large.

Earlier this year, research by Johns Hopkins and UCLA showed U.S. prisoners were 550 percent more likely to catch COVID-19 than those not incarcerated. And according to The New York TimesCase Tracker, “more than 433,000 people have been infected” in U.S. jails and prisons. Over the summer 84 of the top 100 COVID-19 outbreak hotspots in the country were prisons and jails, 15 of them located in Florida’s incarceration system alone. In the Sunshine State an incarcerated person has a 365 percent higher chance of contracting the coronavirus than outside of prison, and an 11 percent higher chance of dying from it there.

“Prisoners are being denied access to clean water, ample food, and cleaning supplies while being forced into filthy overcrowded cells with people sleeping on the floor. As conditions worsen, the death toll in total has risen,” said Karen Smith of Florida Prisoner Solidarity, in a statement released during a mass funeral held at the state capitol for prisoners killed by COVID-19. “This is cruel, unusual, and unacceptable.”

The first known COVID-19 death of a prisoner wasn’t too far from the Florida border. Anthony Cheek, in Lee State Prison, died on March 26 in Lee County, Georgia. He was 49 years old. Since then, according to research compiled by the Marshall Project, “at least 1,738 other prisoners have died of coronavirus-related causes.” That number could, however, be much higher. 

For state-by-state COVID-19 data: check out this Marshall Project report.

As reports continue pouring in from prisoners across the country about worsening conditions in terms of COVID-19, it’s becoming clearer than ever that we have to put prison abolition (not just criminal justice reform but a complete overhaul) on the national agenda.

Since the 2020 summer protests many eyes have been focused on the front end of the system, where the slave-patrols-turned-law-enforcement initiate the process of criminalization. But the insurrections we’ve been seeing in the streets across the country are practically commonplace in U.S. prisons. The difference of course being that rather than front page news, these acts of rebellion are nearly invisible in the mainstream media.

In the last couple years, the word abolition in regards to ending policies that keep people chained and caged as punishment for crimes, has gone from fringe political theory to mainstream headlines. This has been a result, in large part, of prisoners and detainees, risking it all to sound the alarm, hoping against all odds that they will be heard beyond the walls they are confined by.

A steady flow of work stoppages, hunger strikes, solidarity blockades, sabotage, arson, and full-blown rebellions inside prisons, jails, and immigrant detention facilities in recent years has been capturing the attention of family, friends, and supporters on the outside.

While these acts of resistance occurred, and continue to occur, in many states across the country, several states in the southern U.S. have been particularly bloody and urgent. From Parchman Prison in Mississippi earlier this year to Holman in Alabama, Lieber and Lee Correctional in South Carolina last year, as well as the prison belt across Florida’s Panhandle, these acts of rebellion have exemplified the brutal conflict that is still unravelling, with many parallels to the slave revolts of the past.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this tension, further reinforcing the disposability of criminalized people by ignoring basic social distance and sanitary protocols; further isolating them from friends and family with cancelled visitation; and of course, further profiting through private contracts that over-price every basic need to survive, including healthcare, food, phone calls, money transfers, and commissary.

What can be done?

We continue to adapt and evolve with the shifting terrain of community organizing under a pandemic that still does not have a clear end in sight. This is a barrier for much of the activism and outreach efforts that activists are accustomed to. Fortunately, many of the tried and true strategies of solidarity with prisoners and detainees are already suitable for the socially distanced reality.

Here are a few tactics we’ve been seeing results from:

  • The phone zap to apply pressure on the facility or agency administration; 
  • The hotline to collect data and contacts from the inside;
  • The noise demo to let prisoners know they are not forgotten (this can be done from inside cars);
  • The lockdown at symbolic locations which captures media attention;
  • The blockade at strategic locations that disrupt flow of prison labor or business as usual for prison profiteers; (these “affinity group” style actions allow for tighter health and safety protocols.)

For further inspiration, check out the robust timeline of the prisoner-led resistance at Perilous, a project that is “documenting and publicizing acts of prisoner resistance and unrest across the US and Canada.” The project aims to chronicle every event since 2010 in which two or more prisoners took action inside any type of carceral facility; state prisons, immigrant detention centers, city, county jails, federal prisons, and juvenile centers.

Taking a cue from former prisoners in North Carolina

On November 4th, this year, a 58-day vigil began at the gates of the Governor’s Mansion in North Carolina, led by former prisoners and family members with loved ones in the state’s prisons—calling for a mass clemency to avert further illness and death due to COVID-19.

The group Decarcerate NC has since cranked up the pressure on Governor Roy Cooper with a constant presence at his home, and all over social media. They released a powerful short film on December 30, 2020, documenting their effort, serving as inspiration to the rest of us on what is possible during the pandemic. View here:

Along with the film, Decarcerate NC is also asking everyone to join them by signing their letter to Governor Cooper. Here’s an excerpt from the letter: “As a state Representative, state Senator, Attorney General, and now Governor, you helped lead North Carolina down a path of mass incarceration over the last 34 years. Even now as you have the absolute authority under our state constitution to free and protect hundreds or thousands of individuals from repeated exposure to Covid-19 in our prisons, you have not once lifted a pen to exercise your clemency power. Unless you act in the next few weeks, you will become the first governor in at least 40 years—and potentially more than 200 years—to refuse to grant a single commutation or pardon.”

What’s happening in North Carolina is an example of what can and should be happening across the country. After the presidential inauguration next month, we will still have over two million people sitting unprotected in jails, prisons and detention centers, which have proven to be breeding grounds for COVID-19, turning any prison sentence into a potential death sentence.

As 2020 comes to a close, the #CagingCOVID campaign is gearing up for a call-to-action on February 1, 2021– taking place in Washington D.C. This day is known historically as “National Freedom Day,” since it marks the signing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But tragically it also marks the birth of the U.S. prison system that we know today and must abolish tomorrow.



Panagioti Tsolkas
Panagioti Tsolkas
Panagioti Tsolkas is a former editor of the Earth First! Journal and co-founder of Fight Toxic Prisons, an environmental justice focused prison abolition organization. He was a statewide coordinator on a voter registration and civic engagement program through the Florida Immigrant Coalition and also recently helped NationInside.org launch the #CagingCOVID campaign to pressure the DOJ on its pandemic response in prisons.

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