A round-up of how prison abolitionists are responding to the growing public health crisis and the particular challenges it poses to prisoners who cannot effectively self-isolate. This feature was first published by It's Going Down.
Across the world, a new era of social struggles has kicked off in the face of not only the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but also the subsequent economic meltdown which has followed it. This deafening crisis has laid bare the fundamental contradictions of this society and threatened to push the United States not only into full on economic collapse, but potentially open revolt. Everywhere we look, workers are walking off the job and launching wildcat strikes, renters are mobilizing in refusal of paying their rent, and people are coming together in their communities to meet their own needs directly, while the State busies itself with securing trillions for yet another corporate bailout.
Greatly overlooked in this tapestry of growing resistance however, has been the explosion of action on both sides of the prison walls as the virus has quickly spread. Over the past month, thousands have launched hunger strikes, work stoppages, daring escapes, and protests on the inside, while on the outside, massive rallies of ‘car blocs’ have organized noise demonstrations to demand the release of inmates.
A “Public Health Disaster”
Just as various regional governments have responded to widespread institutional failure to address the virus by locking down entire cities and states, on April 1st, prison officials are moving to lock down the entire prison system as fear grows that the virus has reached a tipping point.
In an effort to tamp down the COVID-19 infection rate across the nation’s corrections system, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced on Tuesday that starting Wednesday, inmates in all of its institutions across the country will be kept in their assigned cells or quarters, effectively putting them in lockdown.
Current reports from around the country indicate that prisons and jails are in crisis. On Tuesday morning, the Washington Post reported that the chief doctor at Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail, called current conditions a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.”
On Saturday, Reuters reported surging infection rates at jails and prisons across the country. As of 2017, the U.S. had the highest known incarceration rate in the world, with some 2.2 million people being held.
To take one example, as Buzzfeed noted:
[C]oronavirus infections in New York City’s largest jail have skyrocketed to nearly 10 times the rate of the city’s residents overall.
And just as the pandemic has exposed the harsh realities of austerity driven neoliberalism, so to has it showcased the horrific conditions within the neo-plantation system of incarceration and detention today. Despite the US spending more on so-called corrections than education, across the US, facilities are marked by rampant overcrowding, inhumane conditions, lack of access to basic hygienic supplies, dilapidated infrastructure, and under-staffing. At the same time, the prison population itself is increasingly made up of aging inmates with existing health problems, while a growing body of incarcerated people remain locked up simply because they cannot bail themselves out or they “lack a residence.”
As the Chicago Tribune wrote:
As of Feb. 13 , the most recent data available, there were 5,736 inmates in Cook County Jail; 5,390 were pretrial, according to the Cook County sheriff’s office. Of that number, 48 percent either cannot afford their monetary bail or lack a residence for electronic monitoring, according to Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart. Nationally, an average of 700,000 people are behind bars each day because they cannot afford to pay their bail, according to National Bail Out (NBO).
It’s important to note that the current crisis will only help to accelerate this trajectory. Meaning: under present conditions, working people, and especially the working poor and communities of color, are about to become even more destitute. As the first of the month dawns, millions face the very real threat of homelessness at the same time as the incarcerated population becomes made up increasingly of the indigent and houseless. In LA County for instance, 30% of the inmate population is currently “lacking a residence.”
Free Them All
Across the so-called United States crime, specifically violent crime, has plummeted, while the rate of incarceration has skyrocketed, especially in the face of both parties backing, expanding, and militarizing the war on drugs. With the coming to power of Trump in 2017, we have also witnessed an explosion of private detention facilities, operated by corporations which helped finance the Trump campaign. Now, this boom industry of industralized repression faces an epidemic which threatens not only prisoners, but those that run it, prompting blow back from the system’s own employees.
But as we witness the spread of coroavirus cases on the inside, many facilities, thanks to pressure, revolt, hunger strikes, and protest from prisoners and abolitionist groups on the outside, have begun to release thousands of inmates.
As the New York Times recently reported:
In New York City, where the jail system’s chief physician warned several days ago that “a storm is coming,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city had released at least 650 people by Sunday from Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex.
In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has embarked on what appears to be the largest U.S. effort to release inmates, freeing 1,700 people this month, or about 10 percent of the population of one of the nation’s largest jail systems.
Deputies in Los Angeles have also been instructed to make fewer arrests, and Sheriff Villanueva asked the district attorney and courts to delay some criminal proceedings. Arrests in areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department have dropped from around 300 a day to about 60 a day.
The LA Times wrote:
California is granting early release to 3,500 inmates in an effort to reduce crowding as coronavirus infections begin spreading through the state prison system.
On one hand this is thrusting abolitionist arguments front and center, as thousands of inmates who have been incarcerated for largely arbitrary, non-violent violations or simply because they are too poor to bail themselves out, are freed. On the other, as facilities move into a system wide lock-down and communication with the outside will become more difficult, there is even more need for inmates to not only receive treatment and care, but also be freed as the virus continues to spread.
With that in mind, we are publishing both an interview with various abolitionist groups currently organizing and reporting on the struggles of incarcerated people in the middle of the pandemic as well as presenting both a timeline of resistance and a list of current and ongoing phone-zaps happening across the US.
Abolitionist Organizing and Anti-Prison Action on Both Sides of the Wall: An Interview with Representatives from Oakland IWOC, Kite Line, and Perilous Chronicle
Wanting to know more about how prisoners, inmates, and detainees on the inside were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, we caught up with representatives from several groups and media projects which correspond directly with prisoners and help amplify their struggles.
Talking with members of the Oakland Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which organizes alongside prisoners in Northern California, the Kite Line radio program, which produces a radio show and podcast about contemporary prison struggles, and Perilous Chronicle, which documents incarcerated resistance across the US, we asked how both prisoners and abolitionist formations are fighting back in the midst of the outbreak.
IGD: Would you say there has been a general strategy emerge from prison officials in regards to their response to COVID-19, or has it simply been total negligence?
Oakland IWOC: The response from jail and prison officials has been fairly uniform across the board, both negligent AND by plan: You have to realize that incarceration is itself a public health crisis. Rampant illness, suicide, malnutrition, injury, trauma, mental illness, and neglect are the norm inside.
And the norm is also an institutional dedication to dehumanization and hostility to any oversight, information or power external to their agency structure. So their response is completely proportional and predictable – not in proportion to the threat of the virus or the humanity of those caged, but proportional to the scale of their own authoritarian prerogative and intransigence. And predictable in that they locked down like they always do and any additional measures are coming late and in half measure. Plantation attitudes are killing incarcerated people.
Kite Line: Over the past three weeks, we’ve spoken to prisoners across the country about COVID-19. Across the board, we’ve heard that prison administrators are making lax plans to prepare, at best. Prisoners are angry about the indifference towards getting them tested for the virus. Many are organizing together and are asking for help with that, but they’re scared too. Their families are scared.
A couple weeks ago, people in many facilities didn’t know what was happening in terms of infection. Checking back with them this week, every single one has confirmed rapidly spreading symptoms, and these are in prisons across the country.
IGD: How have prisoners responded to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in various facilities?
Perilous: Prisoners and detainees in the US and Canada have been getting together and responding to this growing pandemic by engaging in collective protest and rebellion in numbers that are nearly unprecedented in the last decade at least – on par only with the 2016 and 2018 national prisoner strikes. We’ve seen protests in at least 15 facilities across the US and Canada in the last ten days, and we expect the actual number is much higher.
IGD: What kinds of tactics have prisoners been utilizing in these struggles?
Perilous: Prisoners and detainees have chosen tactics from across the spectrum – from petitions to hunger strikes to mass refusals to mass escapes to what prison officials and corporate media are calling riots. In Georgia, prisoners even engaged in a dramatic collective suicide threat – tying bedsheets around their necks and threatening to jump off the upper tier of their dorm if the prison didn’t institute effective quarantine measures for visibly sick prisoners.
The thing that is perhaps most unique about the way prisoners and detainees are responding right now, besides the sheer volume of protest, is that an unprecedented number of prisoners and detainees are calling for their immediate release – rather than the improvement of some condition of their incarceration. It is their incarceration as such that is threatening their lives.
IGD: Broadly speaking, how have abolitionist groups responded to the spread of COVID-19 across incarcerated populations and is this response having an impact on the situation? Has it helped in getting folks released?
Oakland IWOC: Even though the strains, quarantines and pace of the crisis has dictated mainly hyper local and improvised responses from abolitionist groups, their responses have been fairly consistent tactically and in content across the country: maintaining connection with the inside both to support them and to get accurate reportage out; doing material jail support for releases as they get out and pressuring agencies and politicians to do three things:
- release people
- increase care and precautions inside and
- choke the flow of people into these facilities.
And the pressure tactics possible in this moment are phone zaps, media work, demand letters, and now pickets/noise demos with cars! A new thing!
And yes, not only is the long term cultural shift around incarceration that abolitionists have driven forward been in play in this moment, but our preparedness and agility have definitely added power to the push to get people released. We are part of the aggregate pushing that includes families, public defenders, civil rights lawyers, prisoners themselves agitating, and more.
IGD: What do prisoners want people to know about what is happening on the inside?
Perilous: These people are desperate and are calling on the world to notice that their lives matter and that if left where they are, many will soon die. As the UN said in a statement earlier this week calling for the reduction of prisoner populations, “physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.”
In their state of desperation, they are doing what we’ve seen prisoners do over and over: they self-organize and begin by using the grievance channels provided to them by the prison administration. When they are inevitably ignored, they slowly escalate tactics until they are either heard or brutally repressed – as they were in four separate protests at ICE facilities this week where guards shot teargas and pepper balls at prisoners demanding their release, according to BuzzFeed News.
In two facilities this week, prisoners heard that there were multiple cases of COVID-19 in the facility they were locked inside and made the basically rational decision to leave. This meets almost every ethical standard of self-defense one could imagine. In response, law enforcement agencies in South Dakota and in Washington State chose to deploy helicopters and dozens of law enforcement agents to capture these people and stick them back in the facilities where their lives were threatened. The vast majority of these prisoners were low-level offenders of the very sort the U.N. and numerous advocacy groups are currently calling upon carceral bodies to release.
Timeline of Resistance
The following is a timeline of action throughout the month of March 2020, which showcases the growing amount of resistance happening both inside prisons, jails, and detention centers, as well as on the outside in solidarity, demanding freedom. This list largely pulls from Perilous Chronicle and Never Again Action.
- March 31, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo Outside State Capital in Denver to Demand Release of ICE Detainees
- March 31, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego Calls for Release of ICE Detainees
- March 31, 2020: ICE Detainees in Bristol County Launch Work Stoppage
- March 30, 2020: Massive Car Bloc Noise Demo in Philadelphia Demands Freedom for Incarcerated
- March 30, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Chicago Calls for Release of ICE Detainees
- March 30, 2020: The Intercept Reports Women in ICE Detention in Louisiana Made Video to Protest Conditions
- March 30, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo Outside of North West Detention Facility in Solidarity with Hunger Strike
- March 29, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Orange County, New York to Demand Release of Jail Inmates
- March 29, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Houston to Demand Release of ICE Detainees
- March 28, 2020: York County Launch Hunger Strike to Demand Release from Coronavirus
- March 27, 2020: Hunger Strike Kicks off at Tacoma’s North West Detention Center
- March 27, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in St. Paul Outside of Governor’s Mansion Demands Freedom for Inmates and Detainees
- March 27, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Bergen County, NJ to Demand Release of ICE Detainees
- March 26, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Durham, NC to Demand Release of Inmates from Jail
- March 26, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo Outside of ICE Facility in Bristol County, MA
- March 26, 2020: Hunger Strike at Laval Migrant Prison in Quebec
- March 26, 2020: Hunger Strike at Monterey County Jail in CA by Inmates to Demand Release from Coronavirus
- March 26, 2020: Hunger Strike at Stewart Detention Center, Georgia in Response to COVID-19
- March 25, 2020: ICE Detainees Hunger Strike in Richwood, Louisiana in Response to COVID-19
- March 24, 2020: 9 Women Escape from Work Release Facility in South Dakota to Avoid COVID-19 Exposure
- March 24, 2020: Hunger Strike at Laval Immigration Holding Centre, Quebec Against COVID-19 Conditions
- March 24, 2020: Disturbance at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, Louisiana
- March 23, 2020: Two Protests at LaSalle ICE Processing Center, Louisiana in Response to COVID-19
- March 23, 2020: ICE Detainees in South Texas Protest Over Lack of Response to COVID-19 Epidemic
- March 23, 2020: 14 Escape Yakima County Jail During COVID-19 Crisis
- March 23, 2020: Demonstration Outside of Home of Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr Demanding Release of Prisoners
- March 22, 2020: ICE Detainees Hunger Strike in Glades County, Florida Protesting Inaction on COVID-19
- March 22, 2020: Car Bloc Caravan Noise Demo Outside of Detention Facility in Hudson County, NJ
- March 21, 2020: Protest on Rikers Amidst COVID-19 Outbreak
- March 21, 2020: Car Bloc Protest in Chicago Demanding Release of Migrant Children
- March 20, 2020: ICE Detainees in Bristol County Publish Letter on Threat of Coronvirus
- March 20, 2020: ICE Detainees Hunger Strike at the Elizabeth Detention Center, NJ in Response to COVID-19
- March 20, 2020: Car Bloc Noise Demo in Solidarity With Hunger Strike in NJ
- March 20, 2020: ICE Detainees in Alabama Protest, Hunger Strike and Threaten Suicide Amidst COVID Outbreak
- March 18, 2020: ICE Detainees Hunger Strike in Hudson County, NJ in response to COVID-19
- March 17, 2020: ICE Detainees Hunger Strike in Essex County, New Jersey in Response to COVID-19
- March 3, 2020: Asylum Seekers from Cameroon Launch Hunger Strike in ICE Detention
Ongoing Phone-Zap Campaigns
For an interview with Oakland IWOC on how to organize winning phone-zap campaigns, check out our interview with them here. Consider getting a group of friends together today [perhaps virtually] and making some calls!
- Puget Sound Anarchists has new column on prison struggles in Washington; includes info on phone-zaps.
- Thurston County phone-zap demanding the full release of prisoners across the county.
- Puget Sound Prisoner Support has an ongoing call in campaign to demand full release from the King County facilities.
- Call-in campaign for Washington State prison.
- Call-in campaign to free prisoners in pre-trial at Multnomah County jails and juvenile hall. Organized by Care Not Cops.
- Demand release of inmates in Michigan at Dane County Jail
- Demand young people be released from Cook County Jail
- Demand release of migrant children in Chicago
- Call-in against Governor of Michigan
- Macomb Correctional Phone Zap
- Illinois Department of Corrections