If there is any benefit to the collective trauma of a global pandemic, perhaps it lies in the revelation of things heretofore unseen — in affording us the opportunity to take seriously things we’ve not previously made time for. Yet while fresh vision is a useful start, this second sight must be paired with action equal to the challenges of our extended moment. Before the pandemic, for example, the United States counted 924,000 hospital beds, but had upwards of 2.3 million prison beds, more than double the number at our disposal for receiving sick patients.
July 2020 has brought us to nearly 150,000 dead, according to the Center for Disease Control. That is an unimaginable number. Coronavirus cases are still rising in more than 20 states and, as much of the country loosens restrictions, the hospital system in Arizona and Texas, where COVID numbers are spiking, are overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread in correctional facilities nationwide, petri-dishes with insiders dying because of few options to enact social distancing in cramped quarters with inadequate cleaning supplies and poor ventilation. A recent study shows that prisoners are 550% more likely to die of COVID-19. More and more, the ongoing national protests and arrests against racist policing practices coupled with the continuing cases of deadly police force, are revealing the cruel fact that the majority of incarcerated Americans are in jail, at least in part, because of decades of racial capitalism and structural dehumanization.
And increasingly, the unequal impact of the pandemic and the uprisings to demand wholesale change to an unequal practice of policing cannot be separated.
In this case, one disaster leans into the other: Converting jails and prisons to medical purposes can avoid the humanitarian crisis unfolding in correctional facilities, serve the larger population in a time of national crisis, and speak significantly to the ongoing and long-standing injustice upon which the carceral system is based.
While few correctional facilities are making efforts to release insiders, which include many immunocompromised aging populations who have little to no recourse for survival, thousands more remain at risk. Recordings of abuse and the daily humiliations of being caged during COVID-19 rarely make to social media. All jail populations remain trapped with no control over their health and their possible death. Studies have made it starkly clear that populations of color are disproportionately hit by COVID-19 infections, and the death rates are alarming: two to three times their population percentages. The issue is not that a person or a group have an underlying pathology that makes them more vulnerable, but rather that the design of public health and its practice of structural racism has for decades favored some groups over others. Racial data with respect to COVID-19 is eerily similar to the disproportionate representation of Black and Brown bodies in our jails and prisons.
Importantly, the intersection of #BLM uprisings and COVID-19 are a crucial moment to speak out for racial justice and demand change, and a rare opportunity to reimagine the use of correctional facilities to engage more fully with prison abolition. Black women have called for Abolition for centuries, and it is no coincidence that prison abolitionists have echoed these demands due to the similarities between the prison industrial complex and slavery. Recent events have made the connective tissue between prison and police abolition as we know it more stark, one lynching enacts the lowest possible depth of despair, only to be deepened by the next, such that abolishing the carceral state is more urgent than ever. While many mayors and governors are coming out to support the Black Lives Matter movement, they are resistant to releasing incarcerated people who continue to lose their lives every day.
If COVID-19 has sharpened our vison that populations in prisons are a vital part of our communities then the trickling release of prisoners cannot be based on the red-herrings of “harm,” “risk,” “violent” or “sick.” Prisons have historically been built upon the act of disassembling communities. Abolition is built on care for all public health. #Freethemall4publichealth cannot be based on algorithms, which are not race-neutral to pick and choose who is worthy of life. Instead, we must face the fact that “Prisons are no place to be sick. Prisons are no place to be,” as Laura McTighe argued during a panel discussion on Past as Prologue: Storytelling About Resistance to Incarceration During COVID-19 hosted by longtime prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba.
Kaba, in a recent opinion piece argues for police and prison abolition because years of reform are a part of the problem so that “When a police officer brutalizes a black person, he is doing what he sees as his job.” Prisons, abolitionists and organizers are also learning from activists birthed during the AIDS crisis epidemic which ravaged incarcerated populations.
We need to see differently. Abolition is a not a singular strategy, it is a combination of various reimaginings to undo what long-time abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has described as “organized abandonment.” Gilmore, who has also been organizing and writing about the prison industrial complex for decades, explains in her talk COVID-19, Decarceration, and Abolition, “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prisons became the solution to problems, rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.” This would mean fortifying existing mutual aid networks, reallocating funding away from the carceral state and toward health, education and housing. It would mean addressing harm without resorting to more harm.
There are precedents and resonant examples from which we might proceed. Gilmore has said, “Abolition is long, Abolition is presence,” and illustrates with the example of Los Angeles where, many decades ago, the ACLU brought forth a “conditions of confinement” case against the county for the inhuman conditions in the jail. Over the years, the ACLU continued to monitor the jail and 18 years ago, the ACLU invited abolitionists to the table to envision a solution they had not thought possible. Slowly but eventually, abolition became a central argument and sixteen years later, abolitionists and reformists were able to persuade the LA County Board of supervisors to funnel the billions allocated for a new jail, into housing, healthcare and other life-sustaining initiatives.
The prison industrial complex was never a war on drugs, only a war on its most vulnerable citizens. And the current system is built on the social liquidation of targeted populations achieved through domestic warfare. In other words, we need to address the fact that, as a nation, we have outsourced basic social services to our prisons, and before them, to the police. Poverty, redlining, state violence, structural racism, access to education and healthcare, including mental health services for substance use disorder and trauma-related addictions, are some of the reasons this cycle continues. Furthermore, we need to address the larger issue of violence in our communities, violence that exists before people are incarcerated. In fact, abolitionists do not separate interpersonal violence from state-sponsored violence, particularly violence against women. And neither should we.
Danielle Sered, in her book, “Until We Reckon,” argues that perpetrators of violence are often victims of violence first and have had no support to deal with their long-term trauma. Unless we acknowledge the relationship of state-enacted violence of anti-Black policing to the prison industrial complex, we will continue to end people’s lives. Murder will continue under other names. Abolitionists are committed to dismantling the carceral state, but this cannot be achieved by simple decarceration.
Whereas decarceration is about emptying our jails with no sustained forms of community governance and structures in place, decarcerating populations must be coupled with providing adequate resources to support the safe and healthy return of insiders. Labor unions, housing initiatives, faith organizations, healthcare workers, artist organizations, prison organizations, neighborhood organizations, tenant, libraries, legal aid transit workers public health and bail fund advocates, the flourishing of mutual aid networks, all connected to the movement of abolition, are already addressing organized abandonment with increased urgency during the pandemic. Organizers are also building solidarity with folks on the inside and outside with bail funds and other initiatives that insist on the health of those inside. In the Belly, an abolitionist journal by incarcerated intellectuals is an anchor across prison walls.
Meanwhile the pandemic has forced further closures and hospitals have been filled to capacity in many parts of the country while the workers in these areas have struggled with inadequate resources. Since 2010, over 120 rural hospitals have closed with 19 hospitals shuttering their doors in 2019 months before COVID-19 was termed a global pandemic. This is all happening while new jails are being built in rural U.S. Very often, people ask, what is the alternative to prisons? Appropriately, prison abolitionist Kaba has asked back, What is the alternative to oppression? And “What is the alternative to exploitation?” There currently is no alternative system to prisons, and abolitionists want to create an alternative to the domestic warfare on its citizens. Now is the time for prison abolitionists to advocate to turn prisons and jails into temporary hospitals for the pandemic, and to lay out a clear plan for how we ensure these facilities don’t return to cages after the pandemic.
Abolition is already happening. On May 12, 2020, the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco passed an ordinance to shut down a jail, #SF850. This came after years of organizing and advocacy by the local community. Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co.) in Atlanta, a Black trans and queer-led group caused a substantial reduction in the population of a local jail through sustained community initiatives. With the help of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, SNaP director, Marilynn Winn is turning the Atlanta City Detention Center into a community-operated social service center. This is the city where Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back after falling asleep in his car and subsequently fleeing police. This is the state of Georgia, where a modern-day slave patrol executed jogger Ahmaud Arbery this same killing season.
Reimagining the carceral state gets people out of jail, helps vulnerable communities, and might even give us more hospital beds in the face of a global pandemic. We should listen to Gilmore, who has stated profoundly, “Where life is precious, life is precious.” It is time to expand and extend our understanding of what and who is precious.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.