Since I retired, I have volunteered for Reading Between the Lines, an organization that leads discussion groups with the recently released from prison as well as people serving the last year or so of their sentences. These discussions are grounded in a piece of literature, a challenging and substantive piece of literature, which changes week to week. The point of it is to give participants an opportunity to articulate ideas, listen carefully to each other, and think deeply in a group about ideas. Participants, sometimes skeptical at first, have come to love the program. In prison, many have shared that no one has ever listened to them before. Many are buoyed by the confidence they have gained even though they may have only completed elementary school. It is amazing how much I have learned from the participants, their wisdom and experience shedding light on the likes of Franz Kafka, Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, William Stafford, Kate Chopin, et. al. .
And now the coronavirus. Once again, this virus has exposed the most vulnerable in our society. Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Illinois, said, “Our jails are petri dishes.” Precautions of sanitation, hygiene, social distancing in our prisons are impossible. The prisons, ATCs (Adult Transition Centers), and halfway houses are on their best version of lockdown right now, meaning no visitors from outside the facilities can come in except, of course, staff. We are presently trying to see if there is any way we might digitally connect with the participants we work with, but this is still a work in process (needing to raise money for ipads, etc).
There are over 2.2 million people behind bars in this country, the largest number of any country in the world. More than authoritarian countries. More than the most brutal dictatorships. More people are behind bars in this country than live in most of the major U.S. cities (Exceptions: New York, LA, Chicago. Houston). There are a disproportionate number of people of color in our prisons. According to the NAACP, 56% of the prison population is African-American or Hispanic. There are a disproportionate number of people from the lower economic strata in our society in prisons. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the median annual income of incarcerated people was $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. If you are white or have financial resources, you are more likely to beat the system.
Medical care in prisons was already over-stretched before the virus hit. Prisons are over-crowded, unsanitary, filled with an aging population many of whom were in previous poor health before they came. Prison healthcare facilities are kept separate from mainstream healthcare, which means the facilities are inadequate to need and are under-resourced, sometimes antiquated. According to Nathalie Baptiste in her Mother Jones article, 40% of inmates suffer from some kind of chronic medical condition. Often these chronic conditions are respiratory problems and heart conditions, major issues with COVID-19.
The ACLU sent a letter mid-March to the DOJ and BOP regarding early release of elderly prisoners and those with chronic health conditions. The letter has also asked law enforcement to curb arrests. It is bringing suit in many parts of the country to support early release. Some governors have already positively responded. Even Barr says he is working to do the same at the federal level, especially for those incarcerated for non-violent crimes. But the wheels of justice are slow. The NY ACLU has a petition directed to Governor Cuomo that anyone can sign supporting these measures. Local state chapters of the ACLU are active and contacting them might reveal specific actions to support taking place in your part of the country.
Of course, early release does not mean that this vulnerable population has anywhere to go or any access to the healthcare they need. They will be returning to the same vulnerable populations they came from with the same lack of economic and educational opportunities as before, compounded now due to the pandemic. Early release does, ironically, help the prison system to wipe their hands of a large subset of their population that has strained them medically and financially.
Exposure to a virus has taken on a whole new meaning. This virus is exposing us to potential illness and possible death, but this virus is also exposing us to the inequity in our society. This virus is exposing us to who is the most vulnerable in our world. This virus is exposing us to the disconnect between our supposed high moral principles and the systemic imbalance we and others experience. Will we become immune to this exposure? Or will we remember, when this pandemic has passed, to take these lessons to heart, to really “read between the lines” of our world and change/ alter/ reconstruct/ reimagine the institutions and systems that organize our lives?
*Update: Last Sunday (Palm Sunday), Jeffrey Pendleton died of complications of Coronavirus. He was the first detainee at the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago to die of the virus. He was awaiting trial but did not have bail money to post bond. His case was under review for possible release. Though it is too late for Mr. Pendleton, consider making a donation to the Chicago Community Bond Fund to help others, who are awaiting trial without the financial resources to make bail, get released.