Prior to this past week, I wasn’t consumed by anxiety and fear over the Coronavirus, but now it’s just about all I can think of. I’m doing my best to stay indoors whenever possible, avoid contact with my grandparents (who hate that I don’t go downstairs to see them), wash my hands multiple times a day, and not pour over Twitter and the news like an obsessed zombie, but my nerves are through the roof. I hate the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and knowing that people truly do not care that their actions are affecting thousands of others. As the CDC strongly recommends cancelling any gathering of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks, I can’t help but panic over the millions of people in US jails and prisons who are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus, and how barely any politicians are considering mass releases.
My politics are primarily centered around a socialist and abolitionist perspective where the government works for the people in ensuring that everyone is taken care of without the need for violence or incarceration. Because of my own beliefs, I am always advocating for the abolition of any type of prison or jail, but especially during the widespread reach of the coronavirus, I certainly know that people will die unless they’re all released. The coronavirus, as with all pandemics, does not discriminate between groups of people it infects. However, it thrives among large groups of people who have health issues and are not remaining vigilant in washing their hands, sanitizing their living/working spaces, and aren’t being treated for any current illnesses. All of these factors are perfectly lined up in America’s prisons and jails. Back in January, I wrote this sentence about why Parchman Prison in Mississippi must be shut down: “People are subjected to inadequate food or dishes that are covered in mold and animal feces, cell blocks are constantly flooded with rainwater and urine, liquid sewage is spreading throughout the buildings, rats roam freely around the floor, and bloodied people and dead bodies lie in every dorm and hallway.” Of course, not every jail and prison is littered with human carcasses as in many of the Mississippi facilities, but the common fact remains that incarceration centers will literally become breeding grounds for the coronavirus once it eventually enters their walls.
Jails and prisons are unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary no matter where they’re located. Most incarcerated people do not have any access to soap, hand sanitizer (alcohol content), toilet paper, or other basic healthcare resources. They are often exposed to human and animal fecal matter, live in moldy cells, and sleep on mattresses with bed bugs. Unless we release everyone, if not just the “non-violent” people (I hate using that terminology and standard) from facilities, we will see an enormous uptick in coronavirus cases, and a massive amount of people in jails and prisons will die. According to The Appeal, we can release people from jail specifically, as “Courts have the power to do this by (1) releasing anyone who does not present a greater danger to themselves or others than they would if they were infected, and (2) by radically decreasing the number of people being sent there who don’t require immediate confinement.”
We don’t have to be a society that throws people in cages and forgets about them forever. We don’t have to sentence people to die in prison either through decades-long sentences or from a lack of care during pandemics like the coronavirus. We can show our compassion for others by freeing most, if not everyone from jail and prison cells to reunite with their families and care for each other during what is a terrifying global threat. But what we need now is for politicians and local/federal legislators to treat incarcerated people with the same gentleness and empathy as they would their own families and everyone else in society. I can only hope that they’ll soon open the jail and prison doors and set everyone free before it’s too late.