Free them all! Empty the prisons! Let our people go!

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By DON HARMON

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” -John Donne

Why are so many in jail? Here is the fightback narrative: America is a racist nation, founded on the principle that billionaire and multimillionaire white men are created equal, and therefore should have equal opportunities to make super-profits from an exploited workforce of lesser humans, namely working people.

The ruling class believes that this unexceptional nation, founded on the time-honored customs of slavery and genocide, continues to oppress African American, Latinx and Native American people as it sees fit. This is a system that dooms millions to lives very different from the privileged few who are ensconced in Shaker Heights, an enclave of the pale one percent with its  stately brick mansions, four-car garages, century-old trees, manicured acres — all nestled midst the poverty of working class Cleveland.

So let’s have a closer look at the state of our African American sisters and brothers deep in the bowels of the Marion Correctional Institute. Is the pandemic here? You bet. More than 80% of Marion’s prison population has tested positive for COVID-19 — over 2000 inmates, plus 154 staff members. The staff at this prison, any prison, come and go of course, which is yet another great way to spread the virus. Sarcasm alert: Hurray! America is number one!!

Coronavirus in America’s Prisons and Jails

Here’s a sampling of other Ohio prisons. At Pickaway County, as of late April, over 75% – 1645 inmates – are COVID-19 positive. At Franklin Medical Center, where Ohio prisoners go to suffer even more, 110 of 111 have tested positive. A report by Time magazine says, “Inmates sitting in soiled diapers or beds for hours. Feces in the showers. Urine caked on beds. These are just some of the conditions reported by inmates at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus – conditions that were problems well before coronavirus hit the facility.”

Belmont Correctional in St. Clairsville, Ohio has 30 inmates who have tested positive. A legal complaint by Derek Lichtenwalter, asking for early release due to COVID-19, says “Bed areas are so crowded that I am within three feet of at least twelve people and those twelve are in the same position. This means that there are 126 people in my ‘dorm’ that are within 3-4 feet of each other. The common areas are overcrowded and what this means is once it gets to the prison it will be spread quickly through the population.”

Cook County jail in Chicago now has over 800 cases of COVID-19 and 7 deaths. Almost 1600 prisoners have been released. The vast majority of the jail’s 4,500 incarcerated people have not yet been tested. 

Here is an ugly statistic, from The New York Times, April 28th. The nation’s COVID-19 hotspots (that is, areas linked to the most COVID-19 cases) are — take an angry guess . . .  

  • Marion Correctional Institute, Marion, OH — 2197 confirmed cases. 
  • Pickaway Correctional Institute, Scioto Township, OH — 1645 confirmed
  • Smithfield Foods facility, Sioux Falls, SD — 1095 confirmed 
  • USS Theodore Roosevelt, Guam — 969 confirmed
  • Cook County Jail, Chicago, IL — 909 confirmed 
  • Cummins Unit Prison, Grady, AR— 906 confirmed 
  • Lakeland Correctional Facility, Coldwater, MI — 816 confirmed 
  • Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, Pikeville, TN — 576 confirmed
  • Neuse Correctional Institution, Goldsboro, NC — 443 confirmed
  • Harris County Jail, Houston, TX — 267 confirmed 

We invite you, dear reader, to research the situation for incarcerated people in the jails and prisons in your area — and find more glaring and fast-growing virus numbers among this oppressed community.

These numbers will inevitably rise. More people will die. Is this the kind of nation we want to live in? Hell no.

ACLU Study

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has recently produced a study with the stark observations: their COVID-19 model finds “nearly 100,000 more deaths than current estimates, due to failures to reduce jail populations.” Their conclusion: “As society at large adopts better social distancing measures in places other than jails, jails increasingly become a primary vector for infection. The takeaway is clear — social distancing measures can only be effective if we extend them to jails as well.”

The liberal ACLU focuses on jails because 66% of this population are pre-trial detainees, thus presumed innocent and not convicted of a crime. The study says, “Hundreds of thousands of people who are incarcerated in jails nationwide are there because they cannot afford to post bail. The average time an individual spends in jail is 25 days.”

The ACLU continues: “As a result of the constant movement between jails and the broader community, our jails will act as vectors for the COVID-19 pandemic in our communities. They will become veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus.”

This happens in two ways. The first they call “Churn of the jail population,” meaning that “individuals are arrested, sent to jail, potentially exposed to COVID-19, released on their own recognizance, post bail, or are adjudicated not guilty and are subsequently released. Upon release, the virus will spread through their families and communities unless the individual is quarantined.”

The second is that “jail staff come to work each day and are exposed to COVID-19, then return home and infect their families and communities. This applies to jails, prisons, and detention centers. There are 420,000 people who work in jails and prisons in the U.S.”

Why does the ACLU limit its study to the jail population and the staff who attend them? Because two-thirds of this population have not been found guilty of any crime. The ACLU properly asks why their pre-trial lives should be risked by the obvious lack of social distancing? Shouldn’t they be released so that they don’t contract the virus? But let’s take this issue one step further.

Rehabilitation, not punishment

What about the convicted felons who languish in America’s prisons, not to mention the over 80 percent of the prison population who are there for non-violent crimes? Should they be released? Or should they be condemned to their fate by allowing the virus to do its deadly work? Keeping them locked up is a forced experiment in “herd immunity,” the barbaric notion that some rightwingers call “culling the herd.” Aren’t we better than that? 

Is our present-day mass incarceration punishment working? Does it lead those who receive such treatment to become better citizens? Never! The evidence is clear. In the racist, classist society that exists today, a society without hope for tens of millions who live in poverty and deprivation, over 50% of today’s released felons re-offend.

Consider this fact: The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only 4 percent of the world’s population but 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated, the U.S.  locks up over 2 million people, a large percentage of whom, close to a majority, are African American, Latinx and Native American. Over 4.5 million more are on parole or probation, under the jurisdiction of this injustice system.

As Michelle Alexander writer in her book The New Jim Crow: “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal.”

This entire rotten system of jails and prisons has to go. It is not enough to just free the pre-trial detainees. It is not just, not humane to abandon society’s victims, our people, to the terrible fate of capitalism’s most oppressed. In the society that socialists seek to bring into being, there will be no prisons, no poverty, no daily degradation. No one will be denied a decent job, along with quality housing, education and healthcare. Just as one of the first acts of revolutionary societies throughout history is the liberation of the old institutions of repression and the freeing of its jailed victims.

What’s that old trade union phrase? “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

FREE THEM ALL!  LET OUR PEOPLE GO!

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