The Coronavirus in Jails and ICE Detention Centers: A Case for Prison Abolition?

  The partial halting of the global economy due to the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed economic inequalities that have existed in the world for years. The tragic mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis in the United States provides a glaring case for the need for a single-payer healthcare system. As millions lose their jobs, the calls of some leftists and centrist politicians (like Andrew Yang) for Universal Basic Income (UBI) have been amplified. Certainly, there are many more structural observations to be made, but what I have noticed in my personal life is that people are not doing well in isolation.

Being inside for most of the day drives people crazy in different ways. Zoom classes feel more tiring than the real thing; my professors complain about it mid-class. Working from home is harder to schedule and manage when people live in a shared space or have to take care of children. There is also the immense economic stress that working-class people who have recently lost their jobs are going through. And of course, people are getting lonely. A friend recently said to me that he misses casual interactions with strangers, such as borrowing a lighter for a cigarette or striking a conversation with someone at a party. Undoubtedly, we are, as the cliché goes, social creatures. When left to our own devices, our thoughts spiral, bad habits run loose, and sometimes depression sets in. Simply put, our mental health suffers.

If this pandemic doesn’t make people realize the need for prison abolition, I don’t know what will. 

I’ve been saying this to my friends and what I mean by this is that the majority of people – except essential workers like grocery clerks, truck drivers, and nurses – are feeling the terrible effects of being confined to one space for the first time. Many people have access to the internet, can watch TV, read books, and if they are not living alone, can hang out with their family or flatmates. And yet we are still losing our minds.

This is not to make some kind of equivocation between social isolation measures and prisons. Of course, non-essential workers are in isolation so as not to overburden the healthcare system. We want to save the most vulnerable among us. What I am suggesting, though, is that just as we have taken this moment to reflect on concepts like UBI or universal healthcare, we should also critically examine the institution of the prison. If social isolation has negative psychological effects even on middle- and upper-class people who haven’t lost their jobs, then we can only imagine the undoubtedly worse, dehumanizing conditions that incarcerated people deal with every day. We should take this moment to re-conceptualize how justice can be exercised in our society without caging human beings.

We should take what we are currently feeling and imagine if we were dealing with the lockdown in the way that incarcerated people live every day. Picture having to be locked in a cage for months or years on end without the internet or your loved ones and only intermittent access to library resources. Put yourselves in the shoes of an incarcerated person who has been put in solitary confinement for a reason as arbitrary as pissing off a guard or as serious as a suicide attempt (yes, suicidal inmates are often put in solitary!). Imagine being left with your own thoughts and anxieties for months or years on end like the former US political prisoner Albert Woodfox, who spent 43 years in solitary confinement.

Could you imagine that you would come out a better person from such an experience? A more mentally stable person? Do you think that excessive punishment for whatever your “crime” was could make you truly learn something or would you simply leave prison with state-sanctioned trauma?

What’s more, the Coronavirus is rapidly spreading through jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers in the US and around the world. A recent study from the ACLU found that if no measures are taken, the result could be as many as 100,000 more deaths caused by COVID-19. This is the case because the US has an abnormally large population for a number of reasons (Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th does a good job of explaining some of them). Currently, 2.3 million people sit in US prisons and jails. This makes up 21% of the world prison population even though the US makes up just 4% of the total world population. Because of immense overcrowding, American prisons are uniquely susceptible to the Coronavirus, which can spread very quickly among incarcerated people where social distancing is essentially impossible. For example, in the Marion correctional institution in Ohio, 73% of inmates have tested positive for Coronavirus. While it is unclear how many incarcerated people are infected or have died of Coronavirus, on May 7th, the first death of an unnamed ICE detainee was recorded. However, it still remains unclear how many incarcerated people have contracted the virus because of a lack of testing. 

Luckily, some lawmakers are pushing for the early release of some incarcerated people in order to halt the spread of the virus. Even former-ICE director John Sandweg has called for the release of nonviolent immigrant detainees – but sadly, only about 700 ICE detainees have been released out of a population of 32,300. Released detainees are, however, still monitored with ankle bracelets. This is only a fraction of what should be done. Should the rest of the people in jails, prisons, and detention centers just be left to die? Will people just accept this indirect state-sanctioned execution by negligence just because incarcerated people have broken laws as small as entering the US without proper documentation? Are we okay with 100,000 more potential COVID-19 deaths in the United States? We certainly shouldn’t be. 

It is very hard to control infectious diseases in prisons, jails, and detention centers. It is highly unlikely that the Coronavirus pandemic will be the last pandemic to ever occur. If these systems are left unchanged, then something similar could happen again in the future. So now is actually the perfect time to rethink the prison system and conceptualize how justice can be carried out in more holistic and nonviolent ways. Many people around the world have been working on such ideas for years and commonly refer to this concept as “prison abolition”. In a recent interview for Democracy Now! CUNY Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes the case for prison abolition in light of the pandemic but also as a way of thinking about reducing harm and inequalities in our societies. She defines abolition this way: 

Abolition seeks to undo the way of thinking and doing things that sees prison and punishment as solutions for all kinds of social, economic, political, behavioral, and interpersonal problems. Abolition, though, is not simply decarceration, put everybody out on the street. It is reorganizing how we live our lives together in the world. And this is something that people are doing in a variety of ways throughout the United States and around the planet already. It is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. It is actually something that is practical and achievable in the city of New York, in Texas, in South Africa, around the world.

In other words, abolition does not simply mean releasing people from jails and prisons but addressing the root causes that lead people to commit crimes, such as poverty. That means fighting for more social housing instead of criminalizing homelessness, building mental healthcare systems rather than putting mentally ill people in prison, redistributing wealth, and creating better jobs instead of persecuting people who committed crimes to survive. It also means addressing institutional racism, decriminalizing drugs, and so much more. The problem of incarceration is not one-dimensional and so the solution of abolition must be multifaceted and transformative. 

The legendary civil rights activist and prison abolitionist Angela Davis famously said: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” And Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, this is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. Radically transforming the world is not only possible, but it is practical and it can be life-saving. So maybe, just maybe, we should not wait until the next pandemic to start caring about the lives of the incarcerated and to begin questioning and changing the supposed “justice” system. Instead, we should do the work of abolition now.    

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