While Authorities Release a Few Thousand for Show...

Local Jails Are Keeping More Than 1/2 Million People in Conditions That Are Spreading Coronavirus – and Most Haven't Even Been Convicted of a Crime!

| revcom.us


It is an outrageous fact that U.S. city and county jails hold nearly half a million people who have not been convicted of anything. Overwhelmingly, they are in jail because they are too poor to pay bail – even bail as low as $100 – to get released as they await trial. In addition, jails hold about 125,000 prisoners who have been convicted, but of crimes that do not involve violence, ranging from shoplifting or passing bad checks to theft or drug crimes. (34,000 jail inmates have been convicted of crimes of violence).1, 2

Now, on top of the outrage of their imprisonment, these prisoners may find the penalty for their poverty, or for their petty crimes (also often driven by poverty) will be severe illness or death from COVID-19 as outbreaks spread in America’s jails.

In mid-February prison and civil rights activists and public health experts began raising the urgent need to release or furlough large numbers of these prisoners – the elderly, the chronically ill, those who were awaiting trial, those whose convictions were not for crimes of violence, and those who were about to complete their sentences. This was both to protect the lives of prisoners, as well as to prevent these jails from becoming mini-epicenters of disease that will spread in the broader community.

In response, various city, state, and federal authorities made noises like they gave a damn, but immediately faced push-back against releasing significant numbers. Much of this has come from pigs and prosecutors – “the forces of order” – on whom the whole ruling class depends to maintain their control – their dictatorship – over the masses of people, especially the most oppressed.

As the virus spread rapidly through Rikers Island jail and major releases were being discussed, “law enforcement officials” urged “caution” and “the city’s five district attorneys attacked the ‘seemingly haphazard process’ by which people, including some accused of violent crimes, were being released.”3 Responding to moves to release nonviolent, elderly and not-convicted prisoners, the president of the Houston police union denounced “mass releases” and warned of “the danger of letting violent criminals back out on the streets.”4 All of this was bullshit as none of the releases involved people convicted of violent crimes; this was fascist propaganda aimed at whipping up fear, demonizing prisoners… and condemning them to possible death.

And leading the charge? Who else but fascist-in-chief Donald Trump, who was asked about the prisoner releases on April 2 and responded that “Some people are getting out that are very serious criminals in some states, and I don’t like that. I don’t like it,” and warned that “we’re looking to see if I have the right to stop it in some cases.”5

The end result has been that so far only a small percentage of jail prisoners have been released: New Jersey—1,000 of roughly 15,000 jail inmates6; Los Angeles County—1,700 out of about 15,0007; New York—650 out of 7,000.8 (On average about 9%.) As of this writing, only Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) has released a substantial percentage—1,000 out of fewer than 2,000 prisoners.9

And in virtually all instances, the authorities insist that any releases be done “on a case by case basis,” meaning an inherently slow process in which each individual will have to be separately reviewed – while the epidemic rages on at viral speed.

Looking at the total picture, Udi Ofer, director of the Justice Division at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “We are nowhere close to the rate of release we need to see to stop the spread of COVID-19. Every day that government officials do not act is another day that lives are put at risk.”10

And in New York, current liberal hero Governor Cuomo has gone even further. Right in the midst of New York’s epidemic, he quietly introduced new language into the state budget that, according to Slate.com, essentially eliminates pre-trial release (with or without bail) entirely for large numbers of offenses, including people facing multiple charges of minor crimes like shoplifting! This is a move likely to further swell New York’s jail population.11

In other words, in spite of many newspaper headlines about “thousands” of prisoners being released, the ruling class has at this point “sorted through” its differences and determined that the best thing is to stage cosmetic releases of a small percentage of prisoners, while leaving the overwhelming majority to await the ravages of COVID-19 locked in crowded and dirty jails with little access to health care.


1. The Prison Policy Initiative, March 19, 2019: “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019” [back]

2. Johns Hopkins “Public Health on Call” podcasts, April 2, 2020: “COVID-19 in Prisons, Jails and Detention Centers”[back]

3. New York Times, March 31, 2020: “‘We’re Left for Dead’: Fears of Virus Catastrophe at Rikers Jail” [back]

4. The Marshall Project, March 6, 2020: “When Purell is Contraband, How Do You Contain Coronavirus?” [back]

5. The Independent, April 2, 2020: “Trump says he’ll try to prevent ‘young’ prisoners being released from jail over coronavirus fears” [back]

6. See https://nicic.gov/state-statistics/2015/new-jersey for total New Jersey jail population as of 2015 – the last year for which the state provided figures. [back]

7. See CBSNews.com, March 24, 2020: “1,700 inmates released from Los Angeles County in response to coronavirus outbreak” [back]

8. See https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/jail_pop_y.pdf for total NYC jail population [back]

9. See https://www.cleveland.com/news/2019/10/cuyahoga-countys-jail-population-dipped-below-1800-earlier-this-month-the-lowest-it-has-been-in-years-officials-report.html for estimated total Cuyahoga jail population. [back]

10. Reuters, March 28, 2020: “Spread of coronavirus accelerates in U.S. jails and prisons” [back]

11. Slate.com, April 1, 2020: “Cuomo’s Bail Reform Reversal Risks Explosive Coronavirus Spread in Jails” [back]

Prisoners in close quarters at Alabama's Easterling Correctional Facility, February 25, 2020. (Alabama Department of Corrections)




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