By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
PHILADELPHIA—On March 30, a caravan of over 120 cars filled the streets to demand that public officials take measures to empty the jails, prisons, and detention centers because of the COVID-19 emergency. The protesters in the cars chanted and bumped their horns as they circled City Hall and other state and city buildings.
Signs taped to the car windows read, “Jail the virus: Free our people,” “Inaction is murder,” and “Release them all!” A sound system played Beyoncé’s song “Freedom,” which helped to give the event a defiant and almost festive air. Reuben Jones, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he thought the action “made a powerful statement. Traffic was locked up, and people were paying attention.”
The action was sponsored by a coalition of groups that have been agitating for prisoners’ rights. They included: Abolitionist Law Center, ACLU, Amistad Law Project, Black Alliance for Peace, Black and Brown Workers Co-op, Black Lives Matter Philly, Decarcerate PA, Frontline Dads, Just Leadership, LILAC, Movement Alliance Project, Philadelphia Bail Fund, Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, #No215Jail Coalition, Reclaim Philadelphia, ShutDownBerks, Social Worker Action Network, Working Educators, and YASP.
Protesters pointed out that a time bomb is ticking within Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons, which is on the verge of exploding with deadly consequences. On April 1, Philadelphia officials announced that 12 inmates in the city’s jails had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Yet, the city has merely lowered the jail population by less than 6 percent since the pandemic began. Philadelphia, the protest organizers stated, lags behind many other cities and states in taking necessary action. On the state level, in the meantime, emphasis has been on putting quarantine measures in place rather than significantly reducing the prison population.
“Without release, thousands may die”
A statement that the organizers sent to the media stated: “Prisons, jails, youth detention centers and immigration centers are already some of the most dangerous places in the world. Sanitary conditions in these facilities are poor in normal times and medical care is extremely limited. Overcrowding makes social distancing extremely difficult. Hand washing is often impossible. Amidst such conditions, the spread of COVID-19 is not only inevitable but potentially lethal. Without immediate release, many thousands more individuals may die, including incarcerated people, staff, lawyers and their loved ones.
“Right now, Philadelphia jails are holding over 4300 people and Pa. state prisons have more than 47,000 individuals locked up. There are 124 youths in Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Services Center, a detention facility, and 17 in adult jails. Many other youth are in placements around the state.
“The vast majority of incarcerated people are black and brown. Beyond their original unjust detention, individuals and families of color are now at risk of losing their lives.
“The majority of people in the Philly jails are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. Many are in jail simply because they do not have the money to pay bail, or are being held because of unjust detainer policies. The 20% of people in the jails who are post-conviction are serving sentences with minimums of less than a year. As of 2018, nearly 1900 people of the total state prison population were over the age of 60, and many more are under the age of 60 yet have co-morbidities and compromised health.”
On March 31, Johanna Fernandez, a leading activist in the fight to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, relayed a message from Mumia to supporters. Mumia is confined at SCI Mahanoy near Frackville, Pa. Fernandez wrote: “Mumia just called to say that the prison has moved to a more repressive lockdown in response to COVID 19. Guys are in their cells all day, except during a 45 minute period when they are able to be out on the block to do whatever they need to do: (shower, call, kiosk, & mop and clean your cell). 7 to 14 men are allowed out at a time on the block. Designated prisoners wipe down the block between these 45 min periods, during which groups of 7-14 men are allowed out on the block. Food is delivered to the cells.”
“There is no yard.” Mumia told her. “Feels like being back on the [death] row or in the hole.”
Immigrants detained in potential death chambers
The statement by the March 30 protest organizers pointed out: “The Berks County Detention Center in Leesport, Pa.—effectively a prison—is holding 40 migrant adults and children, the youngest a 6-month-old girl. The York County Detention Center houses hundreds more, with 180 detainees currently on hunger strike. Up to 19 [Pennsylvania] counties detain immigrants in cooperation with ICE.”
Mayowa Abayomi Oyedira, an asthmatic asylum seeker from Nigeria who was confined in the York County Prison, wrote in a court affidavit last week: “I cannot sleep. I cannot breathe, and I feel like I am going to die. … Nobody in here can even get me an inhaler. How can they save us from this virus?” Until a federal judge ordered his release on March 31, Oyediran had been placed in a cellblock packed with some 60 other detainees—all sharing a half-dozen rarely cleaned toilets, and sleeping and eating almost shoulder to shoulder.
Although Oyedira and 12 other immigrants with severe underlying medical conditions were freed, ICE is challenging the court order and has resisted calls for similar efforts, arguing that it has the ability to prevent the spread of the disease by quarantining detainees who develop symptoms.
The Philadelphia car-caravan protest coincided with the release of an emergency petition by the Pennsylvania ACLU, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. The petition asks the state Supreme Court to use its “King’s Bench” power to protect public health by ordering lower courts to release high-risk inmates from county jail, and those who are being held pretrial or on short sentences for minor offenses. The lawyers argued that it is only a matter of time before a crisis erupts that would be similar to the one taking place at Rikers Island in New York, where at least 167 prisoners and 137 staff members have tested positive for the virus.
Video of the March 30 Philadelphia protest: