Numerous organizations across our movement to abolish the prison industrial complex have been fighting tirelessly to “Free Them All For Public Health,” as the COVID crisis increasingly reveals imprisonment as the public health crisis that it is. By July 7, 2020, at least 57,019 people in prison had tested positive for COVID, a 9 percent increase from the week before, according to the Marshall Project. In June, states like Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners, and new cases began to decline. However, in the past month, new outbreaks spread through prisons in California (CA), Texas and Arkansas.
While organizations have taken up different strategies and tactics these past few months to get prisoners released immediately— from calls for Governors to grant emergency clemency, to solidarity actions and caravans outside of jails and prisons in multiple states, to bolstering community bail funds and working to end cash bail, and permanently shutting down county jails— prisoners inside have also been resisting and organizing— from hunger strikes in jails and detention centers in multiple locations to most recently prisoners leading the charge for mass releases and swifter COVID-response. Asar Amen, a subscriber and contributor of The Abolitionist newspaper, imprisoned on a life without parole sentence in CA, told Critical Resistance:
“What’s happening in this moment is inspiring. I’ve been so tired of the word ‘reform.’ Things need to change. As James Baldwin said, ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’”
San Quentin State Prison has experienced its first wide-spread outbreak following the transfer of 121 prisoners from California Institution for Men (CIM) in San Bernardino County, a known prison “hot spot” for COVID-19 with over 500 active cases and 15 COVID-related deaths. Prior to the transfer, San Quentin had no confirmed cases; now reportedly there are over 1,600 COVID cases and climbing. Immediately after the outbreak, prisoners released a set of demands that outside organizations are amplifying and directing toward the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) and the state Governor. Solidarity organizing has included actions outside of the prison on June 28th, as well as larger caravan actions and mobilizations to both the state capitol on July 1st and outside Governor Newsom’s home in Sacramento, CA on July 5th. Another “Day of Action” in Sacramento to demand immediate prisoner release— starting with a #SayTheirNames action followed by a car caravan and vigil— is planned in the capitol for July 16.
Campaign & Project Updates from Critical Resistance
Critical Resistance has been fighting for prisoner releases through our chapters engaged in anti-imprisonment coalitions in both the West and East Coasts: our CR Oakland chapter in the No New SF Jail Coalition, our CR Los Angeles chapter fighting jailing and policing through the Justice LA Coalition, the Care Not Cops Campaign in Portland with CR PDX, and “Free Them All 4 Public Health” efforts in New York with our movement partners stemming from No New Jails NYC.
Earlier in July, the Justice LA Coalition won two monumental campaign goals. After mobilizing over 17,000 public comments to Los Angeles (LA) record, Justice LA effectively pushed the Board of Supervisors to commit to closing Men’s Central Jail within the next year, and to create an alternative to imprisonment fund as a step of moving the city toward Care Not Cages!
In addition to driving our coalitions and grassroots campaigns forward, each of our chapters also continue to correspond with prisoners through Prisoner Mail programs, building political relationships, and sharing political education & legal resources with thousands of prisoners nation-wide combined. This has taken extra creativity, planning and funds to maintain these programs through Shelter-in-Place and social distancing. CR PDX is now working to expand their Oregon and Washington prisoner mail correspondence with a state-wide mailing effort to people in Oregon prisons.
Fighting Toxic Imprisonment:
More Movement Updates
We’ve also been working to better connect abolitionist efforts across the US nationally and across different issues and communities. At the end of March, after major US cities entered different levels of quarantine to “Flatten the Curve” of the pandemic, Critical Resistance hosted a webinar called “Organizing Against Toxic Imprisonment in the Face of COVID 19,” in which organizers from CA to New York shared their work against imprisonment through different local campaigns fighting jails and prisons. This work has been done in direct solidarity with our loved ones and comrades locked up in jails, prisons and detention centers around the world. After this webinar, we released an “Abolitionist Platform: Toward Healthy Communities Now & Beyond COVID-19,” through which we call for the intersectional efforts of anti-imprisonment, anti-policing and anti-imperialist struggles to coalesce concretely as a response to the COVID-crisis.
Since our webinar in March, our panelists continue to build this movement with us. Release Aging People in Prisons (RAPP) in New York, for instance, continues to target Governor Cuomo to “Let them Go” and “Free them All” by granting clemency to aging prisoners most vulnerable to COVID.
Decarcerate Alameda County— a coalition led by the Anti Police-Terror Project, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Human Impact Partners (HIP), and Restore Oakland in CA— continues to advocate for freeing people from Santa Rita Jail, divesting from incarceration and policing, and investing in community health. Despite a major setback when the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to increase the Sheriff’s Office’s budget by $106 million/year in May, the coalition continues to grow and build collective power with people within and beyond jail walls.
Similarly, Chicago Community Bail Fund (CCBF) is working with other local organizations to push the Cook County Board to defund Cook County Jail and invest in Black communities. CCBF and partners have mobilized Chicago communities to testify to the board, organize an action outside the jail attended by hundreds of people, and gotten positive press coverage (even from a right-leaning paper!) that helps shift public understanding of how we create real community safety. Because the county expects revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19, the anti-imprisonment fight in Chicago may be battling to prevent cuts to services rather than winning new investments, but CCBF remains committed to ensuring austerity hits the jail rather than community programs.
Commemorating the Historic California Prisoner Hunger Strikes Against Solitary Confinement
This month as we learn from current surges of prisoner organizing and resistance in institutions like San Quentin State Prison and outside solidarity actions and “Free Them All” efforts in California, New York and Chicago, IL and beyond, we also commemorate the nine-year anniversary of the 2011 California Hunger Strikes against solitary confinement. This wave of resistance that rocked the prison system and sent ripples of prisoner-led change around the world.
As the strikes waged on, the Short Corridor Collective, a small group of prisoners in the Security Housing Units of Pelican Bay State Prison who started the strikes, carried the struggle forward for years and organized an historic effort of cross-racial solidarity with their Agreement to End Hostilities. The agreement called for an end to all violence and hostility between different groups of prisoners throughout the state of CA from maximum security prisons to county jails. This call for racial solidarity is still vital now, as Black and Brown and working-class white communities continue to wrestle the age-old divide-and-conquer strategies that have kept our communities at odds for generations, both inside and outside of cages.
As we commemorate the strikes, we are thrilled to hear the news that Short Corridor Collective member Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa has been granted parole for later this summer.
Sitawa was an integral member of the Short Corridor Collective and author of the Agreement to End Hostilities. He unfortunately suffered a stroke in November 2019. His sister Marie Levin has been driving hundreds of miles from Oakland, CA to see him when possible, and is preparing for his release, knowing he will need a lot of care and support. You can support Sitawa’s long-awaited release and transition to life outside of the hole and outside of a cage by donating to his GoFundMe here.
In the words of Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner, long-time freedom fighter and another panelist of our March Webinar representing Release Aging People in Prisons (RAPP) in New York:
“We need to fight like hell… In a moment like this where there is tremendous disaster, either the ruling class, the police, the corporations, they all get stronger and stronger; or there’s room for— dare I say— revolutionary justice to be talked about. So— release them all.”
Onward, in Struggle,
9 Ways to Support Prisoner Resistance &
Fight Against Imprisonment Now:
Here are some more updates, campaigns, projects, events and efforts working in solidarity with prisoner resistance that you can support now and beyond this moment:
- Donate to Sitawa’s GoFundMe, help circulate the call for support by downloading and reposting our social media tiles and continue to use the Short Corridor Collective’s Agreement to End Hostilities as an inside-outside organizing tool today
- Support CCWP’s Care Not Cages Campaign, working to get emergency clemencies granted to elders caged in CA’s women’s prisons.
- Stop the San Quentin Outbreak! Read San Quentin Prisoner’s Demands and stay updated on Actions & Calls for
- Support here: bit.ly/StopSQOutbreakToolkit. Support promotion of and/or attend action to support San Quentin prisoners.
- Stay updated on and support the Chicago Community Bail Fund
- Join the calls for Governor Cuomo to Let Them Go & Free Them All by connecting with RAPP
- Support the SF BayView & Donate to help this vital Prisoner-led news source stay alive
- Learn more about Decarcerate Alameda County here and read testimonials from people inside on the Santa Rita Jail Solidarity website.
- Check out and order the latest Issue of CR’s The Abolitionist, Issue #32, an issue delving into decolonization struggles.
- Connect with resources mentioned by our panelists in our Fighting Toxic Imprisonment Webinar on our website here.