US prisons and jails need to move swiftly to release pre-trial, older and medically-vulnerable inmates or face a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions as coronavirus ravages custodial institutions across the country, the Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib warns today.
In an interview with the Guardian, the US representative for Michigan’s 13th congressional district that covers some of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods said that the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing a reckoning with America’s addiction to mass incarceration.
“We need to prevent Covid-19 being a death sentence for so many. It’s hurting the most vulnerable who are held right now in inhumane conditions while the pandemic strikes,” Tlaib said.
Tlaib has introduced new House legislation that would use federal funding as leverage to push states to reduce their incarcerated populations during the coronavirus crisis. Those inmates eligible under the bill for immediate release for up to a year after the pandemic ends would include:
The bill, known as the Dismantle Mass Incarceration for Public Health Act, is one of the boldest efforts yet to tackle mass incarceration amid the pandemic.
“This bill is just the start of a goal to end mass incarceration for all, something our local and national advocacy groups have been fighting for decades,” Tlaib said.
As the coronavirus pandemic has swept the country, correctional facilities, alongside nursing homes and meatpacking plants, have become major hubs of disease. According to the New York Times, all of the top five clusters of the virus across the US are now in prisons and jails.
They include Marion correctional institution in Ohio, which alone has recorded almost 2,500 cases, and Pickaway, also in Ohio, with 1,800 confirmed cases.
Modelling by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has warned that US jails alone could act as such powerful incubators of the illness they could add another 100,000 deaths to the current toll of 121,000. So far that catastrophe has not been realized, with latest estimates suggesting that 627 inmates and staff have died and with 70,000 confirmed cases of infection.
But those numbers are likely to be gross under-counts given the extremely low rate of diagnostic testing in custodial institutions. The virus has also proven itself capable of ripping through custodial environments at terrifying speed.
San Quentin state prison in California has seen the number of confirmed cases among inmates skyrocket from 16 to 470 in the past two weeks. About 100 staff members of the prison have also tested positive.
Tlaib is one of the so-called “Squad”, the four progressive Democratic women who swept into Congress in 2019. Fellow Squad member Ayanna Pressley is a co-author of the Dismantle Mass Incarceration bill along with Barbara Lee, and the remaining two Squad members – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar – are sponsors.
Tlaib said that she grew anxious about the vulnerability to coronavirus of prisons and jails when she starting hearing from Detroit county jails that they were unable to quarantine inmates even if they needed to, given overcrowding. They also reported a dire shortage of nurses and healthcare providers as well as protective gear.
She told the Guardian she became increasingly concerned about the exposure of people awaiting trial whose lives could be in danger from the virus. “Close to a million people right now are incarcerated who are legally innocent, waiting for trial because they can’t afford bail when the courts are closed because of the pandemic. It’s crazy,” she said.
The congresswoman has attended several protests during the recent wave of demonstrations over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. She said that protesters were clear that the fight against police brutality had to be set in a wider context that included mass incarceration.
“We have an incarceration epidemic that has devastated black communities for decades. So yes, the nationwide protests are happening because of police brutality but bigger structural change also needs to happen,” Tlaib added.
She pointed out that in her home state of Michigan the costs of incarceration distorted public spending. “We have high rates of poverty, housing crises, the water isn’t clean yet in Flint – and the number one budget line-item in the state of Michigan is corrections. Not education, not public health, corrections,” she said.
Tlaib recalled what one of her constituents told her recently: “Being poor and black in America always leads in some sort of way to being hit by police or the prison industry.”
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