Help we matter 2: Covid-19 in prisons

An inmate in the maximum security unit of the Cook County Jail presses his hands against the window below a plea for help in Chicago on 10 April.

Governor Dewine has repeatedly told his state that the prison situation is under control. He claims that we can keep Covid-19 out of prisons by screening staff for symptoms and stopping all visitors. This has failed, there have been mass breakouts in the Marion and Pickaway prisons and almost half of all prisons in Ohio have confirmed cases.

In Pickaway extreme measures have been taken. There is no rec time. No counselors or religious leaders can come. There are only two meals a day. People are quarantined to their beds, in a rooms with two hundred people in bunk beds. We are putting people in terrifying situations, taking the few freedoms they have, stopping them from seeing their loved ones, and taking the counselors and religious leaders who help with their emotional support. We are cruel. We need to stop.

Our governor reassured us that the prison staff care about the people in their charge and are committed to their health and safety, and that he is doing everything he can to keep protect the “prisoners.” But both of these are far from true.

My mom has volunteered to lead meditation in prisons biweekly for the past five years. She knows these men, and cares about them. They are not meaningless statistics to her, and they are not just criminals. As Bryan Stevenson says “People are more than the worst thing they have done.” I have heard her talk about the men she works with for years. About their humor, their belief systems, the structures that put them where they are. The people the love. The regrets they have. She told me that on their death beds the men want to be wheeled out into the parking lot, so that behind bars is not the last place they were. She tells me about how the guards treat the people in prison. Like they are nothing, their lives and basic needs do not matter. People who guard prisons do not do it because they care about the people inside.

We gave these people a sentence to change behavior. That does not give us a license to let them die. We murder the people who die in prison because of Covid-19 when it could have been avoided with sufficient conditions. The crimes they committed did not warrant the death sentence. We need to release people in prison for drug crimes and other low stakes offences. We do not have a right to kill them. This will free up space and resources to adequately take care of the violent offenders who need to stay out of the general public for safety reasons. Less than 200 people in Ohio have been released from prison early. Ohio is holding 78,000 people behind bars.This is not enough. It is time we let people who have been sentenced take care of their lives because the people in charge of them now are not.

As I write this I am watching myself try to figure out how to convince you to care about these people. And I am angry that I feel like I need to. I shouldn’t have to humanize people for you. These are human beings put in shitty circumstances that lead them to actions that we have criminalized. Overwhelmingly, people in prison are Black. Poor. Have gone through traumatic events. They have not failed us, we failed them. The United States’ structures did not give them what they needed to live well, so they turned to other systems. And in response we say they do not matter. This country is forcing millions of people to be in close contact with each other during a pandemic. This is cruel. This is murder. And it needs to stop.