As we enter week 14 of the pandemic, attitudes are starting to shift; the shock is wearing off and many of us are hunkering down for the long-haul. Prisoner resistance to the pandemic has not slowed, nor has the commitment of those outside the walls – but the tone has shifted. While our first two updates heralded calls to #FreeThemAll before it was too late – for many, that time has passed. Our updates and timelines are filling with homages to fallen comrades; obituaries for the bodies contained and the spirits now free.
Some states have begun the process of “re-opening” their economies, with disastrous results as the US as a whole is careening towards a death toll of unimaginable numbers. The health care system is taxed, the unemployment system is a bloated mess; ready to burst at any moment, and the insurgent far-Right has begun clamoring for a return to a new normal that will ensure a continued wave of COVID-19 related deaths.
Entire units are put on quarantine isolation for weeks at a time while testing inside remains virtually non-existent. And many have been thrown into isolation as punishment for speaking to the media, or sending information out about conditions inside.
With this reality in mind, it’s no surprise that so many Department of Corrections bureaucrats have completely ignored the pleas from families and prisoners themselves – or even public policy recommendations. The level of depravity that the State has shown in an effort to keep those locked up behind bars has been shocking. Moreover, in the face of possible coronavirus outbreaks, isolation has become a main weapon in the DOC arsenal. Many people inside have been faced with the unthinkable reality of being thrown into prolonged isolation, without access to the outside world or their belongings, simply if they dare to report possible symptoms to DOC staff. In this way, entire units are put on quarantine isolation for weeks at a time while testing inside remains virtually non-existent. And many have been thrown into isolation as punishment for speaking to the media, or sending information out about conditions inside.
In California, the Bureau of Prisons went so far as to take away email and phone access to nearly 4,000 people in an effort to ‘stop the spread of COVID-19.’ This obviously sloppy measure was done at the expense of people having access to basic communication with their loved ones and supporters outside. These facility wide gag orders will become commonplace as both the resistance inside and outside ratchets up along with the infection rates.
“People Shouldn’t Have to Die Like This”
On April 1st, Andrea Circle Bear gave birth via C-section while on a ventilator in a local hospital in Texas. On April 28th she became the 29th person in federal custody to die of COVID-19, her baby survived – but out of “respect for the family” the BOP refuses to release information on the baby’s condition or whereabouts. The news of her death shocked and saddened not only the US abolitionist movement, but the world. Even with documented pre-exisiting conditions and several months into her pregnancy, Circle Bear was not eligible for one of the few slots allocated by the BOP for “priority release.”
Inside women’s facilities across the country, people who have been subjected to brutal assaults and vilified by the “justice” system are disappearing from our lives. On the same day that Andrea Circle Bear lost her life, Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay became the first woman in a New York State prison to die of COVID-19. Approximately 1% of the “over 50” population in upstate prisons have been released by hard line anti-clemency Governor Cuomo. Like other cases, her family was denied access to information regarding her whereabouts when Benson-Seay was placed on a ventilator in an area hospital because of patient privacy laws. The state has created a legal vortex where ailing families and scared prisoners can not gain access to basic medical information.
Lastly, as this column was being put together, it was made public that the first person to die of COVID-19 inside ICE custody had passed away. According to NPR:
A 57-year-old Salvadoran man who was held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California died from COVID-19 on Wednesday. It is the first confirmed death from the disease of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee in an ICE detention center.
Carlos Escobar-Mejia had been in ICE custody since Jan. 10, when he was stopped in a car by the Border Patrol in Chula Vista. Before then, he had been living in the United States for 40 years.
40 years. Only to be stopped by border patrol, put into detention for three months, and then killed a virus that he should have never gotten. People shouldn’t have to die like this.
May Day was different this year, more than in any living memory. Unable to take the streets, (kinda), anarchists, abolitionists and anti-authoritarians of all kinds called for car blockades and caravans in support of striking workers, imprisoned comrades and to demand the end of rent. The emphasis this day was clearly on the essential workers and striking tenants – but many chose to rally in solidarity with those facing down the starkest realities of this virus.
In the Northeast, May 1st saw at least 2 actions both inside and outside of prisons. 10 people being held by ICE in the Bristol County Jail in Bristol, MA refused to be moved to a medical wing after showing symptoms of COVID-19. “These individuals were justifiably concerned that doing so would dangerously expose them to risk of infection given the cross-contamination with many different individuals from all over the facility…,” according to lawyers pressing for their release. The facility escalated the attack when attempting to forcibly remove prisoners and then used pepper spray and dogs when people physically resisted.
In Vermont, an inside-outside demo was also held on Friday May 1st. An alliance of groups in Vermont organized a large scale caravan to the Sullivan County Department of Corrections building among other places. They blasted their horns and chanted along with people inside. According to the Vermont DOC, people inside created a “disturbance” and “caused “minimal damage inside the facility.” Every bit counts!
In the Pacific Northwest, several caravans snaked their way through the Puget Sound. In Seattle, a stop was made at the Reynolds Work Release where at least 5 people have tested positive for COVID-19. The car caravan was met head on with a small and nominally ineffective Proud Boy organized “Open WA” demonstration. The abolitionists were undeterred and rallied outside the facility. In retaliation, the DOC has transferred 6 people inside Reynolds back to state institutions. The organizers of the caravan and the families of the men have organized a call in campaign to Governor Jay Inslee: please support them!
In the last few weeks call-ins and car blockades have intensified as a tactic. On May 3rd in California, people surrounded the California Institution for Men, one of the state’s prisons where over 370 people have tested positive for COVID-19. A #FreeLiyah caravan demanded the release of Ethiopian immigrant and domestic abusive survivor Aylaliya “Liyah” Birru, who has spent the last 1.5 years in detention.
Then, on April 26th, families of those being held at the Adelanto Detention Center were told that their loved ones were coming home – only to then find that the order was then repealed by the judge. On April 30th women inside the facility began a hunger strike to demand immediate release and an end to the inhumane conditions inside the facility.
Detainees in ICE facilities around the country, namely places run by for-profit companies CoreCivic and GeoGroup have faced a growing trend of reprisal for their resistance. About 600 people have tested positive across the 30,000 that are being held on ICE holds, but in reality testing inside facilities is so low that this number can not actively reflect the reality of what is going on.
In Ohio, the Marion Correctional Institution has become a focal point to highlight everything that is wrong with the DOC response to COVID19. Nearly 80% of the population, or almost 2,000 people inside the facility have tested positive, making it one of the highest reported infection rates inside a prison in the whole country. These numbers would be similar in other facilities across the country if widespread testing were being instituted. At the end of last month, families and supporters of those inside staged a demo at the facility, prisoners attempting to thank them through video calls had their messages censored.
On the inside, people have continued to use a variety of methods, from sit down strikes to riots and hunger strikes to protests against the conditions they are forced to endure. The number of disturbances inside being reported has been difficult to keep up with; from prisoners at a DC jail demanding access to showers, mass hunger strikes in Indiana and Michigan; the news moves fast while communication over the walls continues to be disrupted and intermittent. Perilous Chronicle has continued to report on this rise in prisoner resistance while COVID-19 Behind Bars tallies the facilities effected by the pandemic.
The movements to bring everyone home during this crisis are interwoven with our demands for rent relief and a basic quality of life for all essential workers. These things work in tandem as we push the boundaries of what is possible and pick up new accomplices along the way. As the curves begin to flatten and some semblance of a life we once lived returns, we can not leave our imprisoned comrades behind. No one is free until everyone is free. And as the US death toll climbs that matters more now than it ever did.
In closing, special shout out to the over a dozen women at the Mesa Verde ICE detention facility in Bakersfield, California who recently launched a hunger-strike – and now will be released!