Healthcare professionals say that nonviolent and at-risk prisoners must released from facilities ASAP.
UPDATE: Tekashi 6ix9ine was released from prison this week. He will serve the rest of his sentence on house arrest.
The rapper, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, was incarcerated in December 2019 for involvement in a violent street gang. His lawyer, Lance Lazzarro, has called for his immediate release due to the fact that Hernandez suffers from asthma, a vulnerability that puts him at risk from coronavirus. Hernandez was also hospitalized last year for bronchitis and sinusitis, and he has been suffering from shortness of breath, one of the main symptoms of COVID-19.
"Mr. Hernandez has been complaining to prison officials this week of shortness of breath, but apparently the warden of his facility will not allow Mr. Hernandez to go to the hospital despite the recommendation of the facility's medical director that Mr. Hernandez be treated by a doctor at a hospital," Lazzaro said.
Tekashi 6ix9ine requests early release from prison due to Coronavirus scare, @TMZ reports. https://t.co/rWxMKE73xe— Pop Crave (@Pop Crave)1584970539.0
In Britain, Julian Assange's lawyers are also requesting the WikiLeaks founder's release on the basis of health risks. He will make an application for bail on Wednesday.
#Covid19 US is releasing prisoners to protect them from #coronavirus ! My journalist son Julian Assange is detai… https://t.co/EcEPKy8qMy— Christine Assange (@Christine Assange)1584397669.0
Tekashi 6ix9ine Isn't the Only Immunocompromised Prisoner—Most Just Don't Have Lawyers
Tekashi 6ix9ine and Julian Assange are a few of the many current prison inmates facing profound risks from coronavirus. Even if you dislike them personally, their desperate pleas should raise the alarm about the state of prisons on the whole in light of our global pandemic.
As the rest of the world self-isolates and as New York City shuts down, inmates remain in close quarters, making prisoners extremely vulnerable to exposure—and most of them don't have access to a lawyer and press coverage.
Prisons and coronavirus is a particularly dangerous combination, one that could lead to disaster. "Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control," said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at Rikers' Island. "There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap."
Inside prisons, it may be nearly impossible to successfully separate sick patients from well patients. Outbreaks are inevitable, and healthcare in prisons is often lacking to begin with.
I don't know who needs to hear this but everything in the world is fake, all of the systems and the "need" for capi… https://t.co/tjxonFEu8V— Elly Belle 🔮🍊🌹 (@Elly Belle 🔮🍊🌹)1584987753.0
Because of this, most public health officials are arguing that the best solution to the problem is mass release. According to the Marshall Project, Mark Stern, the former Assistant Secretary for the Washington State Department of Corrections, has suggested "downsizing" prison populations in order to ensure inmate and staff health and safety. Downsizing might involve releasing low-risk prisoners and proposing alternatives to arrest for certain crimes.
David Falthi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, puts it more succinctly. "The only effective response is to reduce the population density by releasing people," Fathi says, "starting with those who are most at risk of severe injury or death if they were to contract the virus." In particular, people who suffer from preexisting health conditions, like Tekashi 6ix9ine, and other vulnerable populations like older people, ought to be sent back to their families where they can isolate and be taken care of.
With so many people bunched together in small spaces, jails and prisons are considered perfect incubators for the c… https://t.co/7fkJAVE26U— NPR (@NPR)1584974704.0
"Across the U.S. we have built a system of punishment that is traumatic, and this is only increased with the coronavirus," said Becca Fealk, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona. "ADC must do more than just provide soap to reduce the chance of an outbreak. They need to release people, including older/aging adults who can be cared for by their loved ones."
Many prison administrations have insisted that they're complying with the CDC's guidelines with regards to their incarcerated populations, but if prisons aren't providing inmates with basic human rights and living supplies—and if even Tekashi 6ix9ine can't get to a doctor—how can we expect them to take care of people during an outbreak?
Prisons Begin Releasing Inmates—But Is It Enough?
Faced with a public health crisis that could lead to mass deaths, prisons all around the nation and the world are taking note. Alameda County plans to release 250 inmates, per NPR, and Los Angeles jails have also begun releasing nonviolent inmates. In New Jersey, up to 1,000 inmates will be released this Thursday, including those serving for parole violations and those serving municipal court convictions. In some places, prisons and law enforcement are coming together to reduce their inmate population. France has delayed or suspended short-term sentences, reducing daily prison admissions from 200 to 30.
BREAKING: The New Jersey Supreme Court, noting the “profound risk posed to people in correctional facilities [by] C… https://t.co/aFPSt1gARo— The Appeal (@The Appeal)1584988453.0
These actions garnered support from Senator Kamala Harris, who tweeted that the Bureau of Prisons should release "all low-risk inmates, including those who are in pretrial detention because they can't afford to make bail."
Some jails are also beginning to waive copays in an effort to make sure their incarcerated populations receive healthcare.
"The state's decision to temporarily suspend the $4 copay — the equivalent of a week's worth of work at the prisoner minimum wage of 10 cents an hour — for people reporting cold and flu-like symptoms is a step in the right direction," said Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick, "but it exposes how counterproductive it is to have such a barrier to seeking care. Unfortunately, prior to the COVID-19 crisis," she added, "We regularly heard from incarcerated people that there were shortages of hygiene supplies such as toilet paper and menstrual products." Many incarcerated people's families wind up paying for their hygiene and healthcare.
While hundreds jailed on technical parole violations in NY county jails, here's Rikers: 666 people are being held… https://t.co/SOzWGhIPnO— Scott Hechinger (@Scott Hechinger)1584845838.0
The coronavirus crisis is exposing the flaws in many institutions, and mass incarceration is just one of them. All these revelations beg deeper questions about why inmates weren't given these supplies or opportunities in the first place. Activists have been asking these questions for years, and the tragedy of the American carceral system has come to the fore in the case of migrants enclosed on the U.S.-Mexico border and in ICE facilities across the nation.
The fucking breathtaking evil of ICE. They're spreading COVID, contaminating homes, and putting our neighbors in p… https://t.co/7S0lCqfzyB— Gwen Snyder is uncivil (@Gwen Snyder is uncivil)1584983901.0
In three ICE detention centers in New Jersey, prisoners are currently on hunger strike in protest of poor conditions and coronavirus risks. One detainee told Vice that his fellow inmates are being kept in a small room without access to soap or even cleaning supplies.
"They say they are locking us in so we can be protected," said a current hunger striker named Olisa Uzoegwu. "But they don't do anything different. The cells stink. The toilets don't flush. There's never enough soap. They give out soap once a week. One bar of soap a week. How does that make any sense?"
This week, hundreds of doctors and thousands of activist organizations expressed this concern about these issues, flooding ICE with letters demanding that they release their overcrowded detention centers. The only crime committed by inmates in these facilities is usually non-sanctioned entry to the United States. Despite all this, ICE is still making arrests. Agents were spotted tracking down undocumented immigrants in San Francisco the day of the state's lockdown.
A Global Issue and a Gathering Storm: Colombia, France, Iran, and the US Grapple with Prison Risks
But the coronavirus pandemic is a global issue, and prisons all around the world are facing questions about how to handle incarcerated populations and prison employees. In some cases, inmates are taking things into their own hands. In Colombia, a prison riot left 23 inmates dead. Prisoners were rioting in protest of overcrowding and poor health services that they felt left them at an extreme risk. Riots have also broken out in prisons in Brazil and Italy.
The largest prison coronavirus outbreak in the nation is in New York City, with 38 inmates at the Rikers' Island prison testing positive; 20 have been released, and 200 more will be tested today. In As Mayor Bill DeBlasio considers whether to release 200 more people, 551 people serving "city sentences" for minor offenses and another 666 serving for technical parole or probation violations (like missing a drug test or a parole check-in) are trapped in Rikers alone. These are nonviolent offenders who do not deserve to be exposed to a potentially deadly virus. Still, the New York Police Chief has said that his officers will not cease making arrests, even though 70 officers have tested positive for COVID-19.
All across the nation and the world, jails are releasing inmates. Why they—especially nonviolent offenders—were there in the first place begs a different question. For now, the most important thing is to open the jails and let the people go. Short of mass release, prisons should not be arresting new inmates outside of extreme circumstances; they need to take more precautionary measures, institute comprehensive testing and quarantine, and follow protocols like those called for by the Federal Defenders of New York.
"A storm is coming," wrote Ross MacDonald, the chief physician at Rikers. "We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can."
How to Help
In the meantime, anyone concerned can make a call to their state representative and inquiring about their current efforts; calling airports and prisons using this script from the New Sanctuary Coalition; participating in actions and protests like those being hosted by the Never Again Action, donating to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other similar organizations.
Prisons and detention centers are a disaster (and tragedy) waiting to happen. https://t.co/oF3AN9Ejwr— ichi (@ichi)1584980559.0
IF we’re going to save lives and fight the #coronavirus, THEN we must protect EVERYONE — including people currently… https://t.co/43owItsIBQ— Juan Escalante (@Juan Escalante)1584976462.0
You can turn your panic into action—from the comfort of your own home.
Coronavirus is everywhere, and it's almost impossible to avoid being affected in some way—just like it's almost impossible to avoid all the news coverage about it.
It's also easy to feel helpless as people around succumb to fear and panic. But what we really need right now is to come together—not in person, but from our computer screens, in our neighborhoods, and with whatever platforms we have.
Here are five ways to turn your fear into action and help out during the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Stay inside
There is nothing more important than self-isolation right now. Though it may feel counterintuitive, staying indoors is the absolute best way to prevent more people from acquiring the illness. If you are young and healthy, you still need to stay inside, because anyone can be a carrier of the virus without knowing it—and you could easily pass the virus along to more vulnerable populations, so going out right now is an incredibly privileged way to show that you don't care about other people.
"If you are healthy, but infected, and feeling fine, you not interacting with other people is going to slow this virus down," said Dr. Joshua White, a chief doctor at Gifford Medical Center.
Avoid bars, clubs, and even hangouts with your friends until things start to clear up. Simply having one person over could be enough to spread the virus. It's incredibly difficult, but now quarantining is the best way anyone can use their time. If you have to go out and work or if you have other responsibilities, just use every precaution you can.
It's also important to stay healthy yourself during this time. Don't overdo it with reading the news, don't spread misinformation, and take the steps you need to conserve your own mental and physical health.
2. Donate or support an organization providing emergency relief
The cancellation of school means many kids will be left without school lunches. Local food banks can really use your help right now. Meals on Wheels and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy are running major disaster response efforts. Use this website to find food banks in your area, and if you're seeking a charity to give to, check out this list of trustworthy organizations from Charity Navigator.
Support vulnerable communities like Navajo and Hopi families living in food deserts, incarcerated people, immunocompromised people, and migrant workers.
A few immediate actions you can take now that don't involve money: Text COVID19 to 747-464 or call 1-844-633-204 and ask your state senator to pass the State Coronavirus Bill, which includes the Families First Coronavirus Act. Or, per the NDWA, call 1-855-678-4150 and demand that domestic workers receive paid sick leave.
3. Support the arts, restaurants, and other affected industries
Many people have been left without a source of reliable income during this time. Restaurants are suggesting that you purchase gift cards to use in the future when they're open again, so support your local spot in this way.
You can also donate to freelance artists, either on an individual scale, by purchasing their products, or by supporting funds like the Immigrant Small Business/Freelancer Fund and the Performing Artist Emergency Micro-Lending Grants. If you're able, don't request refunds from venues or services that have been cancelled because of the virus.
There are many resources online for freelance artists. If you are an artist or know any and want to help, check out this comprehensive resource doc.
Sex workers will also be hit especially hard by this crisis. Consider supporting the Emergency COVID Relief For Sex Workers in New York or looking up ways to help in your own country or community.
4. Join a neighborhood movement organization
While isolation is important, if you're able, it's helpful to join a mutual aid fund or check in on your neighbors in whatever way you're able. Be conscious of the fact that, though the coronavirus can affect anyone, everyone has different levels of ability with which they can respond to the crisis. Some people can't afford two weeks of groceries or hand sanitizer, and some people will be left completely alone during this time. Other people already dealing with extreme effects of issues, like mass incarceration and environmental racism, will not have access to necessary precautions and safety.
You can use this flier to check in with your neighbors, check out this guide for help creating a neighborhood pod, or use this form to start your own neighborhood Slack. Check out this doc for more information about mutual aid in general. Or, just send a message to anyone you know who might need help and support to get the ball rolling. It's important to support each other now and deepen our connections, even as we become more divided from each other in terms of physical distance.
I’ve been discussing policy responses for Coronavirus, but there is plenty we can also do to care for each other, N… https://t.co/Xu0D64lZ2p— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)1584113337.0
5. Stay informed
While it's important to limit your exposure to coronavirus news, it's also important to make sure you're sharing accurate information and helping others sift through the noise instead of adding to it. Understand how coronavirus discourse can play into ableist hypocrisy, racism, and xenophobia, and how other preexisting conditions created by economic inequality and systemic issues can determine who gets affected by the virus. Read perspectives from people who need help, set aside a specific time to do your own research, take action instead of constantly scrolling through panicked posts, make a donation plan or a list of five organizations to donate to, keep an open mind as circumstances change, and stay healthy, friends.
We want to hear your voice. Want to add your organization or resource doc to this article, know someone who's doing amazing work, or want to guest post on the Liberty Project? Email email@example.com.