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On 4 April, inmates in a St Louis jail commenced an uprising. They smashed windows, chanted, lit fires and hung signs communicating their needs to the outside world. One sign held out of the windows simply read “HELP US”. It is the second uprising at the ironically named St Louis City Justice Center and the fourth major disturbance at the jail within the last year.
Many of the inmates are in pre-trial detention and have been sitting in jail since the beginning of the pandemic without trials or even a timeline for when they should expect trials. Protesters called for court dates and for humane treatment, and a corrections taskforce report from March concluded that those locked inside were feeling isolated from their families and frustrated over the lack of precautions being taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within the jail. They are not alone; another uprising took place this time last year at a prison in Kansas, and protests have been relatively commonplace across the country as people have worked to expose the hidden hyper-pandemic happening within our nation’s jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers. The United States needs to take this as an opportunity to empty out its criminally overcrowded jails, or continue to perpetuate yet another unforgivable mass atrocity that disproportionately affects immigrants, poor people and Black Americans.
While the pandemic has been particularly brutal in the United States in general, the situation has been much worse for those living in the world’s largest system of incarceration. According to a recent New York Times report, 34 out of 100 people in prisons across the country have contracted the virus, more than triple the rate of the general US population. During the pandemic, an average of seven people locked behind bars have died of Covid-19 every day. One immigration detention center in Virginia saw a nearly 100% infection rate. The real overall numbers are most likely higher due to inconsistent and poor testing measures. Many inmates, like the 3,800 who were infected at the Fresno, California, county jail, have not yet been to trial.
This was the case for Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old Black man who died in a Texas jail because he couldn’t afford $100 bail. In effect, he died because he was too poor to be deemed worthy of survival during a pandemic. According to a report by the University of Texas, 80% of all those who died in Texas county jails were in a similar position to Chaney and those who rose up in St Louis – trapped in a box awaiting trials that they may not live long enough to see. And there are also cases such as Bruce Norris, a 69-year-old Black man in Pennsylvania who was in the process of receiving parole after serving nearly 45 years in prison. He died of Covid before the governor could officially sign off on his release.
Protests demanding the release of people locked inside immigration centers, prisons and jails began almost as soon as the pandemic started. The protests helped define the earliest tactic of the pandemic era, the car caravan. And they have continued throughout the last year, both inside and outside jails like the solidarity protest outside of the St Louis City Justice Center. A memo by Data for Progress reported that the majority of likely voters supported some form of decarceration in response to the pandemic. Contrary to conservative talking points, decarceration is not an unpopular leftist policy; it is a humanitarian demand that most Americans support.
Many local and state governments seemed to follow along with the calls from protesters and public health officials, but those trends have started to reverse. A February article by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza and Sean McElwee, of the Appeal, covered the return to the pre-pandemic norm:
Florida’s Broward County, which reduced its jail population early in the pandemic to under 3,000 “for the first time in decades,” now has about 3,500 people incarcerated – putting its jails at nearly 80 percent full. Even more dire are the situations in Texas’s Harris County, which has jailed more than 9,000 people and has just 25 beds left, and California’s Los Angeles County, where more people are being held before trial for longer than this time last year, before the pandemic.
Despite the uproar around the death of Preston Chaney, Harris county jail, where he died, is nearly full. And while President Joe Biden is gearing up to vaccinate as many Americans as possible, incarcerated people don’t appear to be included, and he has not yet committed to stopping a Trump-era policy that will soon see thousands of low-level offenders sent back to federal prison.
The United States, from Biden’s executive office down to the municipal level, must commit to releasing and providing care for as many people as possible – whether they be in jails, prisons or the concentration camps we’ve created for immigrants fleeing political realities created by US foreign policy. Prisons and jails have always served as warehouses in which our country can hide away the societal crimes of racism and poverty. The uprising at the St Louis City Justice Center was necessary and justified. It was a wake-up call and reminder that there is a hidden pandemic in the United States: our addiction to incarceration, which has led the supposed land of the free to become the home of the largest prison system on the planet. That sickness far predates Covid-19.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid is ravaging American jails and prisons – and inmates are rightly rising up | Coronavirus