It is not new news that marginalized communities are hit the hardest in times of crisis. The steadily growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across America has become yet another pressure brutalizing communities of color, the elderly population, the disabled community, and especially the prison population. From New York to Los Angeles, incarceration complexes have seen some of the highest concentrations of the virus as inmates are kept in exceedingly close quarters and denied proper medical attention. Even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, various diseases and sicknesses ran rampant in prisons because of the close proximity of prisoners. With the virus spreading there are a number of activists, including Dr. Kaitlin Noss and Patrisse Cullors, speaking out about the horrific conditions in incarceration complexes across the country.
New York City, home to the infamous Rikers Island prison complex, has been one of the most affected areas in the world during the global pandemic. With just about 190,000 confirmed cases, this region is a hotspot for COVID-19. Dr. Kaitlin Noss, administrative director of the Prison Education Program at New York University and one of the founders of the Social Justice and Community Organizing (SJCO) Master’s Program at Prescott College, has been heavily involved in the movement against Rikers Island. “What we learned was that we’re in the middle of a crisis and of course the people who are incarcerated in New York City, just like in the crisis of Hurricane Sandy, are considered the most disposable,” Dr. Noss commented during a conversation about Rikers Island. After working tirelessly with abolitionists, such as Zoe Hammer and Ernesto Todd Mireles involved with the SJCO program at Prescott College, Dr. Noss was able to get Jose Diaz, a masters student at NYU, released from Rikers Island after he was incarcerated on a technicality. These activists have been utilizing events such as these as platforms to continuously raise awareness of the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex.
On the other side of the country, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and director of the MFA in Social and Environmental Arts Practice program at Prescott College, has been extremely vocal when it comes to the conditions of prisons in the era of COVID-19. Back in March, Cullors began urgent work setting up the COVID-19 Rapid Response with the coalitions Reform L.A. Jails and Justice-LA in order to demand immediate actions in prisons to save the lives of numerous inmates. This initiative demands early releases to reduce overcrowding, reduction of arrests and booking for status offenses, improvements in custody conditions, and finally prioritizing people’s civil liberties. Cullors comments, “The coronavirus pandemic moment has crystallized why the jailing of so many human beings in Los Angeles County is inhumane. It has crystallized why we should be pushing for an entirely new system.” Since the launching of the initiative on March 26th, the number of inmates in the LA County jails has dropped from 17,000 to just about 13,000. For Cullors, Reform L.A. Jails, and Justice-LA, the creation of the COVID-19 Rapid Response is a step in part of a larger process.
The presence of a global pandemic has put more pressure on marginalized communities such as the prison population. Personal hygiene products are limited to the commissary system, something not all prisoners have access to, inmates live stacked on top one another, and there is no access to items such as hand sanitizer or gloves. There is no separation of more vulnerable populations, such as older inmates or those with preexisting conditions, and inmates with symptoms of the virus remain in the cell blocks. The COVID-19 outbreak has only made the inhumane conditions of these complexes more visible and activists are working day in and day out to ignite movements of change. This virus certainly did not create the grand majority of the problems found in America’s jails and prisons, but it is certainly highlighting them. With this new platform for prison reform, activists such as Dr. Noss, Zoe Hammer, Ernesto Todd Mireles, and Patrisse Cullors are stepping up to speak out and fight for those most affected by this outbreak.