As humans, it is a part of our inherent nature to care and be cared for. During this period of social isolation, many of us are leaning on our friends and family to cope—but what about those who have no support system in the midst of a crisis—what happens to them? For some of our most vulnerable populations—like those incarcerated in jails and prisons across the United States—existence during the COVID-19 pandemic is a time bomb.
Let’s be clear: being in jail is a traumatizing experience in and of itself. The added anxiety of combating a lethal virus while sharing communal spaces with hundreds of others and living in open air cells undoubtedly creates unimaginable mental stress & emotional fatigue. At a time when it is impossible for inmates to see their families, awaiting due process should not mean dying in jail.
Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus is spreading in jails and prisons at a higher rate than in city populations. Seven hundred people at Riker’s Island in New York have already been infected by the novel coronavirus, and city officials in Philadelphia have announced that 64 inmates have tested positive. Sadly, these numbers could have been lower if a significant number of those incarcerated had been freed sooner.
Philadelphia’s city jails have been slow to act in releasing non-violent offenders and those being held on cash bail or low-level charges. While two hundred inmates have finally been released, this news comes as only temporary balm in a social justice system that perpetually criminalizes poverty.
The practice of requiring cash bail accounts for the half a million people sitting in jail each day who are simply too poor to leave, is a crime in itself. As our current crisis unfolds, infection rates have further illuminated how poor people, specifically people of color, are being disproportionately impacted by a virus “highly intersected with race and poverty.”
In the wake of this pandemic, we have been given the opportunity to move beyond the structures in place and take steps towards creating a better future. While it is true that anyone can be infected with this virus, we must recognize that poor communities of color are more vulnerable, and are thus more likely to die behind the walls of an unjust social system.
When the world reopens, we must be advocates for those who are trapped in the machine of mass incarceration. Hence why we cannot go back to “normal”. Normal meant keeping 70% of people in Philadelphia county jails, often for months, as they awaited pretrial. Normal meant separating families, not because of confirmed guilt, but because of poverty. We can do better. We must do better.
Words By: Nikki Schaffer