San Francisco joined the short list of cities with reform-oriented prosecutors in 2019 with the election of Chesa Boudin, a rising star in the progressive prosecutor movement. The child of two parents incarcerated for their involvement with the leftist group Weather Underground, Boudin campaigned on ending cash bail, decarceration, and police accountability. The city saw many real results as he followed through on several of these promises his first year in the role. Boudin forbade his staff from requesting money bail under any circumstances, San Francisco’s jail population dropped by 25%, and law enforcement officers were charged in three different police brutality cases.5591
Over the past year, organizers across the country have been working nonstop to free people from jails and prisons — and yet, of course, millions remain behind bars. Faced with this reality, it can be easy to slip into discouragement at the outset of a new year. But long-time abolitionist organizer and author Mariame Kaba reminds us that “hope is a discipline” — one we must practice even when the horizon is cloudy, when the new year brings no clarity, no easy optimism. In this spirit, I asked a number of organizers working to dismantle incarceration what is giving them hope for the coming year. I’m mentioning just a few decarceration projects out of countless important campaigns. And although I’m spotlighting decarceration projects (those specifically focused on shrinking incarceration and confinement), I want to note that abolitionist organizers are also working to build mutual aid networks, create non-carceral ways to address harm, and advocate for housing, non-carceral health care, education, environmental justice, and more.
Hours before dawn on Sept. 26, the incarcerated workers who run the prison kitchens across Alabama were slated to begin their shifts when they refused to take up their posts, kicking off one of the largest prison strikes in U.S. history. “Everything was electric from then on—[people] were excited and anxious for action,” said Antoine Lipscomb, a founding member of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) who spoke with Prism Reports from Limestone Correctional Facility, one of the largest and deadliest prisons in the state, currently housing nearly 2,300 people. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) classifies 14 prisons within the state as “major facilities,” and there are almost 17,000 people incarcerated in those prisons.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is launching a six-figure ad buy featuring both digital and print spots calling for President Biden to adhere to his campaign promise of decreasing the number of incarcerated persons in the country. Specifically, the ACLU wants Biden to grant clemency to thousands of people who meet certain criteria, something that he could do through executive powers. “We use criteria that reflect an evolution in our thinking around criminal justice,” Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU’s justice division, told The Hill. “For example, calling for those who are now incarcerated, but who if they were sentenced today, would not receive the same sentence [to be released].
Nearly a year after its creation, the Atlanta City Jail task force has recommended closing the jail, demolishing the building and replacing it with a Center for Equity that would support Atlantans’ needs. The 26-page report was delivered to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on June 12, giving suggestions on how the city can change the institution and convert it into a space to serve Atlanta residents, particularly those from communities most affected by the criminal justice system. The report described a center “that will advance racial and economic equity, promote restorative justice, and invest in the well-being of individuals, families, and communities.” The 52-member task force suggested any changes to the 11-story facility that can hold up to 1,300 inmates include addressing ongoing justice reform and the city’s employment and housing concerns.
Jalil Muntaqim, a Black Panther imprisoned since 1971, is one of thousands of elderly prisoners the United States has refused to free during the pandemic. In 1971, two weeks shy of his twentieth birthday, Anthony Bottom, a young Black Panther, along with another Panther, Albert Nuh Washington, were arrested following a shootout with San Francisco police. The pair would be tried along with a third man, Herman Bell, for a separate attack: the May killing of two New York City police officers. They were convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life, the maximum penalty in New York at the time. The judge who sentenced them said the sentence was befitting a society at war. Even the most liberal of U.S. governors would rather risk their prisons turning into mass graves than offer the faintest of admissions that mass incarceration is unnecessary for public safety.
Philadelphia - Protesters, led by currently and formerly incarcerated women, trans and non gender-binary people, held a rally on May 15 in a city park next to Riverside Correctional Facility to demand the release of people held in Philadelphia jails and an end to unjust cash bail. The action featured speeches by women recently released from RCF, as well as people still incarcerated who joined by phone. Everyone respected social distancing and mask requirements due to the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers on both sides of the prison walls planned the action. It was broadcast via radio so incarcerated people could listen to the speakers. Huge signs with slogans reading, “Free Our People!” and “Free Black Mamas!” were held up for people at RCF to see. In turn, they made noise and banged on cell doors to join the protest and demand their release.
My neighborhood in Chicago, “Little Village,” is the single largest jail site in the United States. The Cook County Jail is usually known as a place where violence occurs, like attacks on inmates and correctional officers, suicides and shootings outside of the courthouse. It has also become what the New York Times called a top national “hot spot” for the coronavirus in recent weeks. As of this writing a staggering 491 inmates and over 360 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Six inmates have recently died because of the virus, and the numbers of cases continue to grow. There are several important efforts taking place locally, like the Chicago Community Bond Fund and The Bail Project, to reduce the number of people behind bars during this pandemic.
Prisons and jails are amplifiers of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, because the conditions that can keep diseases from spreading - such as social distancing - are nearly impossible to achieve in correctional facilities. So what should criminal justice agencies be doing to protect public health? On this page, we're tracking examples of state and local agencies taking meaningful steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. (So far, however, no state or municipality has implemented all of our five key policy ideas, nor met the demands issued by various organizations nationwide.) Can't find what you're looking for here? See our list of other webpages aggregating information about the criminal justice system and COVID-19.
A broad coalition of prison abolition activists took to Philadelphia’s streets in over 120 cars—most with just one occupant—to demand officials massively decarcerate jails, prisons and detention centers in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Four separate car caravans—decorated with signs and banners—circled City Hall, the Criminal Justice Center, Gov. Tom Wolf’s Philadelphia office and the federal court building near the Liberty Bell. Sarah Morris with the #No215Jail Coalition stated: “It is completely unacceptable that elected officials have not taken sufficient steps to release people in Philadelphia’s prisons, jails, and detention centers.” Morris, who also represents the Youth Art and Self Empowerment Project, continued: “Their inaction is putting thousands of incarcerated people, workers and their family members at extreme and unnecessary risk. "
We are only as safe from an epidemic as our most vulnerable are. At this time communities across the country are aware of the risks of not practicing the five habits that help to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. We have been encouraged to self-quarantine and many have been “locked down” for weeks. Some people have have expressed solidarity with people in prison as a result. Now that many have become more sensitive to the effects of isolation because of forced quarantine, let’s think about how are (not) people in prison being protected. Understanding that prison health is apart of public health I want to outline the ways that prisoners are not effectively able to protect themselves.