Above: Photo from NY protest calling for clemency for prisoners during COVID-19. From News 10, Albany.
Below are three stories on the situation prisoners are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. People are speaking out to release prisoners so they are not exposed to the virus in situations where they cannot protect themselves. The call is To Free Them All, Now.
Louisiana prisons are ‘death concentration camps’
By: Quess Moore/transcribed by Mirinda Crissman
This slightly edited talk is by Quess Moore speaking at the April 9 Workers World Party webinar. Moore organizes with New Orleans Workers Group and Take ‘Em Down NOLA, a group that has been working to take down symbols of white supremacy and slavery.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this chair about my coalition, my comrades, and everybody in New Orleans doing this work.
First and foremost, Take ‘Em Down NOLA was established about five years ago this summer, and our mission is basically the removal of all symbols of white supremacy in the city of New Orleans, as they reflect the systems of racial and economic injustice and oppression of a more than 60 percent Black city. And so, in the city of New Orleans, you’ve had at least 17 monuments to white supremacy. Now 13, thanks to some of our organizing, we were able to successfully get four of them removed back in 2017.
But all of that was really just a wake-up call, a rally to the people in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight the fact that, you know, state-sanctioned violence has an entire system behind it, an entire apparatus behind it. A Black person is killed in this country every day, extrajudicially, like unarmed Black people being killed by police, and quite often there’s no justice for it. So we wanted to indict the system as a whole when we first come out with the work with Take ‘Em Down NOLA and show that this happens for a reason — this happens because the violence of the state has been codified inside of this country since its inception.
Since the very beginning, it’s been okay to do with a Black body what you will. Not to mention what’s done to Brown bodies and was done to the Indigenous people of Louisiana before New Orleans was ever established before it was colonized by the French. This was called Bulbancha in [a] native Indigenous [language] that basically meant gathering of tons of, gathering of several cultures.
This has always been a port city, the actual infrastructure and the layout of it was established by the native Indigenous people who have been here about 3,000 years, some 30 or so groups. They had been here gathering and establishing culture and technology and creating the template, the blueprint that the French and the Spanish first stole from them and created off their backs. The Indigenous people who have been here, you know, they’ve been marginalized and pushed to outskirt towns.
When you look at a city that, to this day, still has a majority Black population that lives in 53 percent poverty, it’s essentially gone from the plantation to the prison, and it’s a prison house economically and a literal prison house. And so right here in the city where it’s mostly Black folks, and it’s 400,000 or so population, 53 percent of us live in poverty. And that’s the result of wage slavery. It’s a result of the fact we have one of the most booming tourism industries in the world. Eight billion dollars a year come through the city, to this very small city.
And yet, hardly any money, obviously, trickles down to the hospitality workers, and the people are actually holding that system up on their backs. A lot of hospitality workers are working without benefits in obviously very low-paying jobs. And so, it puts us in jeopardy and at risk. And, you know, that risk leads to higher crime rates, because people do, as we say in New Orleans, “get it how they live” and try to figure out how to make money outside of the so-called legal means and that leads to the so-called crime, and the crime leads to us being the number one carceral state in the world’s history. And of course, you know, America is the number one carceral state in the world.
Louisiana is number one in the country; we might be number two to Oklahoma at this point, but usually, it’s been us. And number one in the state is New Orleans. And so right here in a very small town is where you have the greatest prison state in the United States. And you see the reflection of that, you know, in prisons like Angola, which was once formerly the plantation Angola. And so what that’s led to is: These are death concentration camps.
In an instance, like what we’re in right now with a pandemic, between the prisons themselves and between a population where one out of five of us are in the hospitality industry, on the so-called essential jobs, a lot of them have been sent home and don’t have work. The ones who still have to go to work are the most exposed, and then the least protected, because, of course, they don’t have the kind of health care that they need in the first place, living in poverty conditions.
So in response to that, what we did about two days ago [April 7] in the New Orleans Workers Group, which is one of at least a few coalitions that grew out of Take ‘Em Down NOLA a couple of years ago, we organized the motorcade and got about 70 cars to drive down to City Hall and also the area around Tulane and Gravier where a lot of incarcerated folks are locked up. We also drove by the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention camps Louisiana has, because it’s, you know, the prison capital [with] two of the biggest ICE detention camps in the country; they just transition from prisons over to ICE detention camps.
We wanted to call alert to the fact that none of these people belong in prison in the first place. The real criminals are the system; they put them in a position to be inside of a cage in the first place. And it’s even more of a crime now that they’re sitting there in that place where all of the virus and all of the disease is concentrated. At least 15 cases were already detected inside the Orleans Parish prison. We know that that’s only going to spread to the workers; they’re going to bring it back to the people. So, as one of our coalitions, the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Association, says, “If we get sick, you get sick.” And that applies not just for the cooks and for all the essential workers, but it’s also for our brothers and sisters and our siblings locked up.
We took that stand in solidarity for them, with them. The bourgeois media, of course, has tried to erase all that narrative. They don’t want people to believe that you know, all these people believe they deserve their freedom. And they’ve tried to wipe over the story, but we’re keeping that story going. So that’s the most present work that we’ve done here in New Orleans.
PA prisoners tortured for protesting racist policies
By posted on May 1, 2020
Eric McGill was locked up in Lebanon County Correctional Facility in Lebanon, Pa., on Jan. 19, 2019. For 15 months now he has been held there, not because he has been convicted of a crime, but because he cannot afford the preposterous $1 million bail the judge set.
And during his entire pretrial incarceration, McGill, a 27-year-old Black man, has been held in solitary confinement (SHU) because he refuses to cut off his dreadlocks.
Lebanon County prison authorities deny that he is being held in solitary confinement, which is regarded as torture by the United Nations. They claim he is simply placed in a “secure housing unit” that is no different from the general population — despite the fact that they specifically placed him in the SHU to punish him for refusing to submit to the racist demand that he get rid of his “locs,” a hairstyle worn by people of African and Indigenous nations across the world.
Matthew Feldman of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project told Workers World that those held in Lebanon County SHU are let outside their cells for a maximum of one hour a day, between midnight and 2 a.m. That’s also the only time McGill is allowed to use the phone.
Five days a week, McGill gets one hour outside in the dead of night. On the other two days, he gets about five minutes outside. As long as it’s not raining or snowing, prisoners get the option of outdoor recreation or rec time for an hour. If they choose not to take it, they get 20 minutes of indoor time. If outdoor rec is cancelled completely, they get a full hour of indoor rec.
They’re allowed one half-hour visit per week. No books or photographs from the outside are permitted.
McGill has had a cellmate for most of the 15months. They take all meals in their cell. Their toilet has no lid or cover, and if you flush the toilet twice within five minutes, it locks for an hour. The cell lights are kept on almost all day, sometimes 24 hours, with constant illumination even when prisoners are trying to sleep.
These are the conditions that Lebanon County authorities say are not “punishment” and do not constitute solitary confinement. The prison’s own handbook says typical punishment for engaging in a physical fight is 30 to 120 days in solitary.
These were the conditions McGill and others in the SHU faced even before the pandemic caused widespread death row-style lockdowns in prisons across the country.
Even in the racist bourgeois legal system, someone like McGill is supposed to be presumed innocent at this point, having not been convicted of a crime. “It is a legal fiction that people detained pretrial can’t be punished. I don’t know how you can claim what is happening to him isn’t punishment,” said Feldman.
Dreadlocks have a cultural and religiously significant meaning for the Rastafari movement to which McGill belongs. It is clear that he is being tortured for his religious and cultural beliefs.
McGill was told by multiple staff, including in writing, that the reason he is in solitary is because he refuses to cut his hair. Feldman says at least two other Black men are now being held in solitary because they too refuse to cut their dreads.
Violation of civil rights
Eric McGill wrote to the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, a nonprofit legal aid organization that represents people incarcerated in any institution — the only statewide legal aid organization doing this kind of work.
The PILP provides free legal services for civil matters, mostly civil rights violations. Two other men have since filed their own Pro Se lawsuits and are being represented by PILP.
These men are suing on the grounds that their detention is a violation of a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was supposed to ensure religious liberty rights to incarcerated people and to prevent jails and prisons from imposing arbitrary burdens on people.
They claim it is also a violation of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, that defines national citizenship and forbids states to restrict the basic rights of citizens or other people.
Even Pennsylvania state prisoners and those in federal detention are allowed dreadlocks. Lebanon County claims that contraband could be hidden in them and that “locs” are “unsanitary.” Long straight or curly hair is accepted, as long as it’s tied back.
Criminalizing wearing dreadlocks is a symptom of the racist, genocidal nature of mass incarceration. To destroy the ability of a person to practice their religious and cultural beliefs is itself a form of genocide.
The district judge is currently slow-walking this case. Workers World demands the immediate release of Eric McGill and the other two claimants. During the pandemic current crisis, we must fight especially hard to demand: Tear Down the Walls! Free Them All!
A Delaware prisoner’s plea for PPE
By posted on May 1, 2020
This letter is from a prisoner at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in New Castle County, Delaware.
Two prisoners have died from COVID-19 in the Vaughn facility, and a combined 30 more have tested positive for the virus there and at a neighboring Sussex Community Corrections Center. On April 25, the administration finally announced that they would distribute masks to the 2,100 people housed at both facilities — nearly a full month since the first confirmed cases. (tinyurl.com/ybba9h8r)
In 2017, prisoners led an uprising at Vaughn. According to Isaiah McCoy, a former inmate there, the prisoners had exhausted all nonviolent means to protest the “inhumane” conditions at the facility. (tinyurl.com/ycuh46cc)
To: D.O.C. Warden and Commissioner et al.:
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic virus, I am requesting facial masks and sanitizers be distributed out to the prisoner population. So we can minimize and/or prevent the spread of the virus.
Here in [redacted] building [minimum security] where I am housed, no masks exist, no hand sanitizers, other than our own soap which is not antibacterial. A small amount of bleach is given to the tier workers to wipe the doorknobs off, but that’s it. Not enough to clean the walls, the floor, or the bathrooms.
This is a serious matter and needs to be addressed now before it gets out of control. Otherwise, the quarantine area will overflow with countless patients or victims of the deadly virus.
This is a serious medical issue and social distancing in a prison setting is difficult to maintain, particularly for those in dormitories and double cells. So for others to get sick is inevitable. It’s important for you to issue a call for masks, sanitizing material, etc., for all buildings!
April 11, 2020