By LUCAS ALAN DIETSCHE and ERWIN FREED
Workers and oppressed people are dealing with fear, the shortages of sanitary products, and items necessary for everyday survival during the COVID-19 crisis. There are closings of schools, political events, rallies, parades, and work places due to possible students, elderly, and immunodeficient people being infected. Unfortunately, prisoners are often not seen as a highly vulnerable population by the mainstream media.
Coronavirus suddenly exploded in China’s prisons with reports of more than 500 cases spreading in three provinces. In Iran, 54,000 inmates were temporarily released back into the country from virus infection fears. In Italy, where the death toll continues to rise exponentially, prisoners rioted and escaped due to the COVID-19 fears.
Prisons are not a closed biosphere to defend against a pandemic. As in Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” the U.S. criminal justice system has different levels of ecosystems where just the tiniest variable can compromise the whole system. From MRSA and TB as well as sexually transmitted diseases, the ecosystem has the power to put an immediate lock-down on incarcerated persons’ mobility.
But COVID-19 means that not just one inmate is likely to be infected. The levels of the criminal justice system involve: First, contact with police in being arrested and booked; then jail, court, transportation, prison. Throughout that process, the different parts of prison, staff, teachers, medical staff, etc. can be possible infection contacts. Even the mail system of letters and packages to and from prisoners can be possible carriers.
As with many health declarations throughout the world, U.S. authorities have urged people to stay six feet away from each other. This is impossible in a prison, where inmates often are close together due to overcrowding.
Prison administrators, wardens, sheriffs, and district attorneys in many states are coming to realize that their network and veins of holding cells, day rooms, segregation, migrant induction centers, recreation centers, libraries, and transportation vehicles could all be danger areas because the mobility of correctional officers, medical staff, library staff, and incarcerated people on work-release makes them possible COVID-19 contacts. That is not to mention the fact that temporary living placement, halfway houses, and migrant induction centers all are vulnerable to COVID-19.
Incarcerated people, especially now when they have literally nowhere to go if an outbreak happens, should be looked at as an extremely fragile and often immunocompromised community. The historical racism of the United States has meant that a preponderance of people of color are sent to prison, many of whom have pre-existing health problems caused by poor living conditions, such as heart problems, diabetes, and asthma.
Insufficient air, cleaning facilities, and simple hygiene units are not supported by prisons’ meager medical staffs in the event of an outbreak. With crucial health supplies such as masks becoming low throughout the country, such products will become increasingly less prioritized to prisons. If possible, prisoners will have to buy extra hygiene products through the canteen, giving more profits to private companies.
These wide levels of priorities have come about because of the emphasis on incarceration from both the Republican and Democratic capitalist parties. Although the COVID-19 in prisons and jails has the potential of growing into a major humanitarian crisis, the major presidential candidates will differ only in surface-level tactics.
In recent days, many jails and prisons have been releasing inmates to deter possible outbreaks. In Wisconsin the Department of Corrections has stopped admissions into prisons and juvenile facilities. Since there has been running litigation against the sexual and physical treatment of juveniles in Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Juvenile Facilities, the Wisconsin ACLU could not comment on the COVID-19 deterrence in these facilities. This might have been too late to stop the prison-industrial ecosystem from being compromised.
At this time of writing, many jails in the states of Georgia, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, and Wisconsin as well as the notorious Rikers Island, N.Y.—where the virus has spread quickly—have incarcerated people who are infected. An incarcerated woman at a women’s prison in South Dakota has tested positive for the virus.
Besides health concerns, the easy defamation of fundamental civil rights is appalling. The right to have an attorney, jury, and other habeas corpus rights are being slowly compromised because of the dangers of contact. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and some state prisons are banning visits. Visits instead happen through the computer, with a visitor off-sight. Federal prisons are banning lawyer visits for 30 days.
The crisis shows that what is considered criminal can change in a week. Marxists point out how the ruling class creates crime to socially control the “surplus population,” e.g., unemployed, homeless, incarcerated peoples. These shifts and contradictions are unmasking how crime is socially created through capitalism. As described in Mother Jones magazine, the Kenosha, Wis., Police Department posted on its Facebook page, “Due to the growing concern over the flu, Coronavirus and other illnesses, the decision was made to cancel all crime in the Kenosha area. … We are unsure when this ban will be lifted. We ask anyone who was planning to commit any crimes to please stay home for their safety.”
Many jails are still booking people for both felonies and misdemeanors. Instead of being part of the solution, many police are retooling their efforts in regard to crime control. In New Orleans, public defenders are calling for the release of all people charged with non-violent offenses. New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is looking to grant emergency clemencies to older, sick non-infected people. In Ohio, however, the Correctional Facilities administrative officials are more worried about their precious criminal justice system breaking down, than the people involved. Ohio is releasing healthy inmates from the jails and giving them reduced sentences to serve at home or on bracelet.
The capitalist criminal justice network keeping the status quo is resulting in slave labor. To the prison-industrial complex, prisoners are more useful than non-incarcerated wage workers for emergency production related to COVID-19. In a reactionary move, Democratic New York Governor Cuomo has cynically instructed prisoners to make hand sanitizer for less than starvation wages. On CNN, Cuomo touted this brand like he was advertising it for sale.
The situation is chronically normal, as everything from military supplies to high-risk fire fighting utilizes coerced prison labor. Despite the fact that capital is using incarcerated labor to produce its emergency supplies, many media sources write that in case of a huge wave of deaths from the epidemic, Cuomo has said that the prisoners will dig mass graves. The prison industrial complex will always choose prisons as a surplus population to be used and thrown away at will.
The pandemic seeping into the prisons and jails is a horrendous health community situation.
As immediate demands, Socialist Resurgence calls for:
1) Evacuate all people in immigration detention. Abolish ICE and close all deportation centers. No deportations.
2) Stop all new incarceration of people older than 55.
3) Suspend all mandatory check-ins, probation holds, people not convicted, and court appearances.
4) End juvenile detention.
5) Create transitional housing, free health and community emergency services, and educational and job-training services for all prisoners and ex-prisoners.
6) Release people who committed violence in self-defense against domestic violence, trafficking, or sexual assault. We do not support carceral feminism, which advocates use of prison to incarcerate violent domestic offenders; capitalist prisons do not make people safe.
7) Free all political prisoners!
As long-term demands for the future, we call for:
1) Transformative justice and abolition of prisons!
2) Socialist revolution, to create a society in which we have no police and prisons!