Coronavirus: Advocating for The Safety of People in Prison and Detention

March 26, 2020

While America deals with the threats of coronavirus and a shaky economy, a pressing human rights emergency has been developing in the nation’s prisons, including New York City. The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Rikers and Sing Sing prisons last week, spurring a loud call from advocates to release those incarcerated. Activists point out that jails and prisons are breeding grounds for communicable diseases. Similar demands are being made by immigration advocates, who are calling for immigrant detention centers to release those being held, including anyone awaiting deportation and asylum decisions. The Opportunity Agenda is proud to have partners at the forefront of this humanitarian struggle. Below is a roundup of the actions they are taking and how you can get involved.  

“Incarcerated people cannot practice social distancing, cannot access hand sanitizer, and face long wait times for medical attention. We need urgent action to release people from City jails in the face of a major public health crisis.” JustLeadershipUSA’s #FreeThemNow call to action is being echoed by criminal justice advocates across New York and the nation. President and CEO Deanna Hoskins (CI ’19) reiterated this demand in a Daily News op-ed published on March 18. The New York State Board of Correction is calling on city jails to release people who are at a high risk of catching coronavirus. Yet despite this, Hoskins pointed out, lawmakers are considering adding more people to our city’s jails, which is unacceptable. Learn more. 

In glaring irony, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently ordered  incarcerated people  to manufacture hand sanitizer for the rest of the state, despite the fact that – due to its high alcohol content – they themselves cannot use it. Elected officials and a collection of advocacy groups are calling Cuomo out for this injustice. Khalil Cumberbatch (CI ’15), chief strategist for New Yorkers United for Justice, is urging detention facilities to establish protocol to prevent the outbreak from hitting and spreading among incarcerated people. "An outbreak would exacerbate an already stretched prison health system," he said in a statement. 

Safe and Just Michigan united hundreds of criminal justice advocates online for the first time for their March 25 Day of Empathy convening, due to the need for social distancing. The convening, which is typically held in person, centered on the need for greater safety and justice in Michigan’s prisons.  The full-day agenda included discussions around standards of care for pregnant women in prisons, a talk about safety and justice for crime survivors, as well as discussion about the threat of COVID to the prison population. Troy Rienstra (CI ’19), Outreach Director of Safe and Just Michigan asked CJ advocates and allies to take the empathy pledge – a pledge “to stand in solidarity with our incarcerated community members.”  Learn more about how you can take and promote the empathy pledge online. 

Meanwhile, immigrant rights activists are rallying to release immigrants being held in detention centers to protect them from COVID-19. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in immigration detention was reported at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. The individual who tested positive was sent back to the jail after receiving his results. Detention Watch Network is calling for detention centers and jails to release immigrants being held, including anyone awaiting deportation and asylum decisions. “It is the consensus of public health officials that it is safer for our collective health for people to be treated in community rather than in a detention center,” the organization stated on social media, using the #FreeThemAll hashtag. Detention Watch and other advocates are also calling for Attorney General William Barr to halt immigration prosecutions and stop bringing charges of unauthorized entry against immigrants at the border, due to the risks of COVID-19. Join the #FreeThemAll petition.  

Gina Womack (CI '15), Director and Co-Founder of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), has organized a petition to call upon the Louisiana governor and local officials to stop any new detentions and begin the release of incarcerated youth. "Coronavirus is and will be a crisis in the juvenile justice system. With our youth out of school, they are especially susceptible right now to contact with law enforcement. And safety practices such as social distancing are not possible in youth jails and detention centers," FFLIC's statement read. "We must all take immediate action now in order to avoid a serious crisis in our juvenile justice system!" Support Gina in this effort! 

If your organization is also working to ensure the safety and justice of America’s imprisoned and detained populations, please email ejohnsen@opportunityagenda.org and we will include you in this roundup or on social media.