Jails, prisons, detention centers are still COVID death traps, where, despite promises, people in large numbers are left to die. Where is the global outrage?

Two months ago, prisons and jails made up seven of the ten largest COVID clusters in the United States. Hands were wrung, voices raised, promises made. Today … the situation remains the same, and not only in the United States. In the past six days, we’ve `learned’ that prisons in Turkeythe United KingdomMexico are scandals and worse. In the jails of Maharashtra, in western India, prisoners are tested for COVID … but only once they’re dead, and even then there’s no contact tracing. Across the United States, COVID carceral policy is referred to as a massacrepunishment by pandemic, a death sentence, and a death trap. Over the weekend, COVID cases in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona `surged’ by 460%. This list is the smallest fraction of the so-called news over the past six days. As national trends more or less flatten, prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers rates zoom skyward. In response, prisons use solitary confinement more intensely and more oftenwhich only drives infection and self-harm rates higher and higherSome are saying it’s already too late. Women are at the center of this map of abandonment and deceit. Where are the women? Everywhere. Where is the global outrage? Nowhere to be seen.

According to a recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, in England, women prisoners’ rate of self-harm has risen precipitously since March. Women prisoners generally have higher rates of self-harm than male prisoners, largely because so many are living with trauma and mental illness, generally. This has been exacerbated by a new policy of 23-hour a day lockdown. Again, most of the women are in jail and prison for non-violent so-called offenses that would not have been considered criminal in earlier times. One woman, currently held at London’s HMP Downview, has petitioned the United Nations for help. Meanwhile, despite all the promises concerning prisoners living with underlying conditions, as of yet, a trickle has actually been allowed early release, fewer than 30 a week. Yet again, women are at the core of this policy of abandonment and abuse. Despite earlier promises, as of early this week, a sum total of six pregnant prisoners had been released. Twenty-nine pregnant women are still waiting to be released. Of 34 women in mother-and-baby units, 16 have been released. The English government spent £4,000 for electronic tags, to facilitate the release of prisoners. The money was delivered, the tags were delivered, the prisoners remain in solitary confinement in deathtrap prisons and jails. They call it compassionate release.

The same story is true in the United States. In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happened. The prisoners and their loved ones are losing hope, and so the system is working perfectly. Seven women currently housed at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, KCIW, are suing for release. All of the women have serious underlying conditions; the rates of infection are rising precipitously; practically no one is being released. In Louisiana, the men’s prisons have somewhat dodged the COVID bullet … for now. But the women’s prisons, which are more dilapidated and more overcrowded, are recording infection rates between 60% and close to 90%. Nothing is being done to address the situation in Louisiana’s women’s prisons, less than nothing. Almost no one is getting `compassionate release’ and no one in charge has a plan, other than solitary confinement, to address the severe overcrowding. From sea to shining sea … 

Again, this is the news from only the past six days. Promise that you’ll release pregnant women, and then do nothing. Promise that you’ll take care of those with underlying conditions, and then do nothing. Or worse, institute universal solitary confinement protocols. The situation in prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers has been referred to as “the hidden scandal”, but it’s neither hidden nor, actually, scandalous. It’s the logical consequence of five decades of mass and hyper incarceration; of urban development through racist and misogynist violence under the name of policing; and of abandonment as the only real public and mental health system provided. Where is the global outrage at this situation? Nowhere to be seen. But hey, just remember, we’re all in this together.

(Photo Credit: KentuckyToday)

Self-care is not synonymous with selfishness, but is necessary for survival.

Since we’ve been back at school, I’ve managed to wake up before the alarm every single day. Yesterday I woke up with a fluttering heart just after 5, and after 6 today. Not cool for a weekend. Especially not when you have to be at your full senses, on high alert for the coming week. Being positive, encouraging the kids, telling them how brave and wonderful they are, because they are, staying in touch with the kids who are still home, teaching in the real and virtual world, trying to teach, be expressive and animated with a mask on, watching which board marker you pick up, using the same pen for everything, not being able to walk to a desk, hand on child’s shoulder and explain. Coming home, absolutely famished because you only drink the coffee which the hubby packs, because you had a sandwich at school once since being back, but you didn’t know which side plate to use and it was embarrassing having to raise and lower the mask everytime someone came into the staffroom and you imagine the virus lurking in every surface which you know has been sanitized.

Watching these amazing teenagers listen intently, take in every single word we say, fear for their future, ask if they will have to repeat the grade, be afraid to even speak to each other. I miss their quick retorts, funny quips, and especially their random, offbeat questions and comments. We used to ‘get’ each other. Now we’re just afraid of getting the virus from each other.

Watching your friends and colleagues struggle with their own fears, speaking to parents’ concerns about their child at school, their child at home, their child with a co-morbiditiy, their child without a co-morbiditiy, but with vulnerable family members. The parents’ huge and understandable irritation and then their ensuing vitriolic expression when Ministers and MECs don’t say the same thing. Being at the receiving end of that expression, but using diplomacy and exercising patience when you yourself are ANGRY! Watching our principal try and do the right thing by everybody, carrying what seems too much on those slight shoulders. Being available to parents at odd hours because questions, fear, anger and confusion knows no school hours.

Since Lockdown started, we’ve repeatedly told the kids and their parents ‘We’re in this together and we’ll get through it together’…. Now I’m not so sure. What will we come out as? Resilient, tenacious and ALIVE, or defeated, overwhelmed…

I remind myself, as I remind any other teacher and parent reading this, we can only take it one day at a time, and most importantly, this is the time to have and exercise an active and living faith.

Wishing you a blessed Sunday. Do what makes you happy. Be kind to and gentle with yourself. Self-care is not synonymous with selfishness, but is necessary for survival.

(Photo Credit: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency / Cape Times)

We didn’t get to finish

Tembinkosi Qondela

We didn’t get to finish

We didn’t get to finish
a social media dialogue
in between the music
I sent TQ to keep
our spirits up

We didn’t get to finish
he asking leading questions
in response to my saying
that I miss the schoolchildren

What will you do he asks
when most are infected 
the school has to close 
and you can’t even 
visit them at the hospital 

Children whose nutrition 
and immune system 
is compromised are also 
vulnerable and then they 
bring it home to those 
who are more vulnerable

Whizz Centre suspended classes 
for 60 of their learners 
who were a major source 
of the Centre’s income
putting people’s health first

This is the TQ we knew
health before profit
health before economy 
not economy before health
he maintained you cannot sacrifice 
people’s health for the economy

Then he asks me
what is this economy 
we are talking about  
are we talking about 
food or gold

We didn’t get to finish

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Tembinkosi Qondela)

Class in this time of coronavirus

As the world faces a huge pandemic, it is important to take into account the different resources that various countries and classes have to deal with such an event. The main guidelines so far have been to wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain at least 6 feet from anyone who is not living in your home. These guidelines were created by organizations like the CDC and WHO without creating plans that can apply to poor, working class people around the world who live in compact communities – aka slums, townships, barrios, informal settlements – where these practices are impossible. COVID-19 has highlighted how much class inequality is a life or death issue and can be, and has been, easily ignored by those with privilege. Those who are members of the transnational capitalist class, such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and celebrities like Tom Hanks, have continuously pushed these guidelines, using themselves as a model for why everyone should abide by the rules. That’s easy to say when you can get easily tested, when not going to work will not harm your quality of life or prevent you from eating that week, and when you have vacation homes where you can self-isolate. 

This pandemic is maintaining global inequality as the guidelines are not an option for people who have to walk a long distance to get to the nearest water source, and those who cannot socially distance from their neighbors. These areas will be hit the hardest, but the news media barely take notice or seem to care. They continue to show the horror of NYC or New Orleans, or the empty freeways crossing U.S. cities. In order to counteract a pandemic of this sort, we must look out for everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable. In this instance, I am not talking about the elderly; I am talking about those who make up the low-waged working classes, those who do not have the luxury of Postmates, Instacart, or Amazon. 

The media plays a huge role in whose stories or concerns get airtime, structuring how the rest of the world responds as well. 

We have seen how they have only allocated one day of news coverage to the Black community even though they are one of the hardest hit groups in the U.S. It is not a mystery why the media leaves out certain groups, those executives who are members of the transnational capitalist class ultimately decide whose story matters and repress anything that challenges the current global economic conditions. To make a universal difference, we need to give equal time to all vulnerable groups. We need to structure guidelines with more consideration for those who are meant to remain in the shadows, hidden, invisible. Start by looking and seeing. Look at the photos accompanying this with show compact communities juxtaposed with middle- and upper- class communities.

(Photo Credits: Independent / Oscar Ruiz / Publicis)

In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu refuses the death sentence of incarceration

Around the World of Covid, the news these days is pretty grim, and the news from prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers is worse. In those places of confinement, generally, rates of infection are rising precipitously and, despite much hand wringing and loud sighing, the State and nation-states have done little to nothing to less than nothing. Given the past decades increased investment in mass and hyper incarceration, this comes as no surprise. But there is good, or at least hopeful, news, and that is in prisoners’ individual and collective actions and resistance. April saw prison uprisings, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other actions in Sierra LeoneArgentinaColombia, the United States and beyond. Everywhere, prisoners echo the banner resisting prisoners hung from the rooftop of the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires: “Nos negamos a morir en la cárcel.” We refuse to die in prison. In Virginia, Cynthia Scott, 50 years old, African American, currently incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, agreed: “I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here.  But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.” In Canada, on April 21, Joelle Beaulieu, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, incarcerated in a Canadian federal prison in Joliette, Quebec, said NO! to the death sentence of conditions in the federal prisons and sued the Correctional Service Canada for its response, or lack of response, to the Covid pandemic. I was not sentenced to death. We refuse to die in prison.

At the end of April, Joelle Beaulieu sued on behalf of all federal inmates who had been imprisoned in federal prisons in Quebec since March 13. What happens to one happens to all. What happened to Joelle Beaulieu is she was incarcerated at Joliette Women’s Institution. She worked as a cleaner. Joelle Beaulieu worked in highly trafficked, congested areas. When she heard about the pandemic, she asked for gloves, mask and protective gear. The authorities only gave her gloves. When Joelle Beaulieu began developing symptoms, she was given Tylenol. For a week, her symptoms intensified. Finally, after a week, Joelle Beaulieu was tested. Then Joelle Beaulieu was sent to her cell, into what amounted to solitary confinement, for 15 days. She requested either a Native elder or a mental health professional. No one was provided. She says guards did not wear masks or gloves until after she tested positive. Prisoners were told to wash their hands, but were not given disinfectant.

Joelle Beaulieu believes she is “patient zero” of the Joliette Women’s Institution. Within two weeks, the number of Covid positive cases rose from 10 to 50, and by the time Joelle Beaulieu filed her case, more than half the residents had tested positive. On April 21, Quebec reported 114 positive cases. Of that 114, 51 were Joliette Women’s Institution prisoners. Of the women in Quebec who tested positive for Coronavirus, almost all were `residents’ of Joliette Women’s Institution. Joliette Women’s Institution is no outlier, and Joelle Beaulieu’s situation is in no way exceptional. According to Emilie Coyle, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, “Every time we speak with women who are inside the prisons, whether it’s in Joliette or other federal institutions  – they let us know they feel as though they’re not getting the right information. They’re kept in the dark. And that’s particularly concerning for them because they’re trying very hard to participate in keeping themselves safe and healthy.”

In Buenos Aires, when prisoners resisted, they released a statement which said, in part, “We are a mirror of the very society that forgets us and drowns in its own misery, silencing its own true reality:

Those who give up will never win.
We refuse to die in prison.
For a world without slavery and without exclusion.”

From the rooftops of a jail in Buenos Aires to the women’s prison of Virginia to the women’s prisons of Quebec, people are resisting the dehumanization of slavery and exclusion, engaging in the Great Refusal which is the Great Affirmation. They will not be kept in the dark nor will they be silenced. In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu, member of the Ojibwe Nation, said NO to the inhumanity, insisted she was not sentenced to die in prison, and lit a match to light the way to a world without slavery and without exclusion. Others will follow. The struggle continues.

(Photo credit: Sol915)

Covid Operations: We must address the cruelty

Collins Khosa

In the past day or so, the news has suffered a crescendo of iterations of brutality: police brutality; the brutality of racist, White supremacist violence; and the brutality of designating certain populations as disposable, not important to consider when `opening up’ states, cities, countries. This is a snapshot of today’s three faces of brutality: Collins Khosa; Ahmaud Arbery; and the Arlandria/Chirilagua neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia.

Collins Khosa, 40 years old, lived in the Alexandra township, in Johannesburg, South Africa. April 10 was the fifteenth day of the national lockdown, a lockdown enforced by both local police forces and the South African National Defence Force, SANDF. On April 10, members of SANDF saw Collins Khosa and a friend in his yard. The SANDF members saw a cup half full of liquid, which they assumed was alcohol. They asked Collins Khosa whether that was the case, and Collins Khosa correctly answered that drinking alcohol on one’s own premises was not a violation of the lockdown rules. The SANDF members then demanded that Collins Khosa step into the street, so that he might be taught a lesson. Then the SANDF members taught. They beat Collins Khosa to death. Now the Khosa family is in court, demanding an investigation. As they explain, their “case is not about the justification for the lockdown or its extent. It is about combating lockdown brutality”. Lockdown brutality. Leading South African constitutional lawyer Pierre De Vos asks, “Why has there been less public outrage (and less debate) about Khosa’s death and about other lockdown brutality by law enforcement officials, than there has been about the ban on the sale of cigarettes, on the one hand, and about those complaining about the ban, on the other? Is it because soldiers largely patrol working class and poor areas and not the leafy suburbs where most white people live? Is it because victims of brutality have been predominantly black? Or is it because the perpetrators of the abuse have been largely black?”

The past two days have seen numerous reports of lockdown brutality across South Africa, and South Africa is not alone. For example, it was reported yesterday that in Brooklyn, in New York City, of the 40 people arrested for violation of social distancing, 35 are Black, 4 are Latinx, 1 is White: “The arrests of black and Hispanic residents, several of them filmed and posted online, occurred on the same balmy days that other photographs circulated showing police officers handing out masks to mostly white visitors at parks in Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg and Long Island City. Video captured crowds of sunbathers, many without masks, sitting close together at a park on a Manhattan pier, uninterrupted by the police.” Why has there been less public outrage and less debate?

Ahmaud Arbery

At the same time, videos circulated showing the cold-blooded murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Ahmaud Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man, a former high school football player, an active athlete, an all-around good guy. Ahmaud Arbery went jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Glynn County, Georgia. Two White men decided that Ahmaud Arbery was dangerous `resembled’ someone suspected of burglary. There were no burglaries, there was no suspect, there was no reason, other than that of Being Black. Being Black was evidence enough of criminality. The two men followed, hunted, Ahmaud Arbery and shot him, killing him. The two men were not charged with any offense. That all happened February 23, in the early afternoon. Only this week a video emerged showing what actually happened. Only this week were the two White men finally taken into custody. Had it not been for the video, they would be free as any other White man with a gun in the United States. Needless to say but it must be said, Ahmaud Arbery was unarmed. The line from police brutality to `citizen brutality’ in the prosecution of some imaginary crime is a short, direct line.

The Commonwealth of Virginia released Coronavirus data this week, the same week that the Governor, a medical doctor, announced that it was time to start `re-opening the state. The data was broken down by postal zip codes. In the small northern Virginia city of Alexandria, itself hotspot, one zip code stood out, 22305, the largely working-class, Latinx immigrant and first-generation neighborhood of Arlandria/Chirilagua. In Arlandria, a community of around 16,000 residents, 608 residents were tested, and 330 tested positive for Covid-19. That’s an extraordinary 55% of the test population testing positive. Why have so few been tested? Because so many are deemed `ineligible’ because of status or income. That leads to a situation in which people only get tested if they can pass various stringent hurdles. In a press conference today, the Tenants and Workers United, a chapter of New Virginia Majority, demanded “expanded access to testing, ensuring tests and treatment are free, and providing housing so that residents can safely isolate.” Repeatedly, they invited Governor Ralph Northam to leave the Governor’s Mansion and come to Alexandria to see what’s actually happening. Earlier in the week, the Legal Aid Justice Center responded to Northam’s plan to `re-open’ Virginia by labelling the proposal “reckless and cruel”. As Legal Aid Justice noted, “Due to systemic racial inequities, infection and death rates are highest in Black and brown communities. In our state capital of Richmond, 15 of the 16 deaths from COVID-19 were Black residents. In Fairfax County, while only 17% of the population is Hispanic, 56% of all confirmed cases are Hispanic.”

It’s all cruelty actually, rather than brutality. Brutality suggests that those committing the acts of violence are somehow “brutes” or “animals”. Cruelty, on the other hand, suggests that those committing the violence range between indifferent to the pain of others to actually taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others. As with the Khosa family pursuit, this concerns more than this particular police officer or that particular White racist, although they must be addressed. It addresses the whole system of disposable populations, a Black man sitting in his front yard, a Black man jogging down the street, an entire Brown neighborhood, all of them trying to make it through another day. Why has there been less public outrage and less debate? We must address the cruelty that structures our lives.

Azucena, member of Tenants and Workers United

(Photo Credit 1: Daily Maverick) (Photo Credit 2: New York Times) (Photo Credit 3: Tenants and Workers United / Facebook)

Covid Operations: On the genealogy of `overcrowding’, or how we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

In the past 24 hours, overcrowding has made the news: “As France releases thousands, can Covid-19 end chronic prison overcrowding?” “Nine killed in Peru prison protest against overcrowded conditions during pandemic”. Earlier in the week, “COVID-19 Reaches Lebanon’s Overcrowded Palestinian Refugee Camps”. Overcrowding is the Janus face of the pandemic. On one hand, with the regime of social and physical distancing comes concern over overcrowding. Beaches and bars are dangerously overcrowded. When schools re-open, how will they maintain social distancing, how will they avoid overcrowding? In this context, overcrowding has a clear metric: six feet or two meters between each person. It’s measurable, there’s a formula. On the other hand, overcrowding is the `petri dish’ for infection: in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers, in `overly dense’ neighborhoods and individual residences. Here, the math gets fuzzy, as do history and memory. Prisons have been overcrowded for as long as mass incarceration has been the ruling ideology; cities have been divided into “neighborhoods” and “slums”, the latter “relentlessly …  overcrowded”, for as long as real estate and commodification of urban space have been a main economic driver. Why does it take a pandemic for `the world’ to take notice?

Consider these statements from the last couple days. In calling for Iran to release its female prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, UN human rights representatives noted, “Iran’s prisons have long-standing hygiene, overcrowding and healthcare problems.” In some places, prison overcrowding is not only long-standing but `notorious’: “Throughout Latin America, prisons are notoriously overcrowded, violent and dominated in large part by gangs or corrupt officials.” “The spreading specter of the new coronavirus is shaking Latin America’s notoriously overcrowded, unruly prisons, threatening to turn them into infernos.” “Throughout Latin America, prisons are notoriously overcrowded and violent, and Peru is no exception.” How did Latin American prisons become notoriously overcrowded while the equally overcrowded prisons of the United States are merely “overcrowded and underfunded” or “significantly overcrowded”. Prisons in the United States are described as having “a troubling history of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions”; prisons in France and Europe are described as a “combination of cramped quarters, poor sanitation and desperate overcrowding”.

Last year, the United Nations reported that by 2018, over 1 billion people were living in slums or informal settlements. In 2018, the world population was around 7.6 billion. 13% of the world was living in slums or informal settlements. 23.5% of urban populations were living in slums or informal settlements. Where was the `notoriety’ over the past thirty years of urban so-called development: escalating rents matched with reducing numbers of rental units, proportionately less and less “affordable and adequate housing”. For the urban poor, at first, and then for everyone but the urban rich, expulsion and exclusion became the daily in what was fast becoming  a planet of slums.

Yesterday, when Cicero Public Health Director Susan Grazzini was asked about Cicero’s high rate of Covid-19 infection, her answer was short and direct: “It’s overcrowding. There are certain areas where we have more COVID-19 (cases). Its more places that are overcrowded.” A week or so earlier, when Gabriel Scally, the Royal Society of Medicine’s head of epidemiology, was asked about England’s urban high rate of Covid-19 infection, his answer was equally direct: “Houses in multiple occupation must be in the same category as care homes because of the sheer press of people. I have no doubt that these kinds of overcrowded conditions are tremendously potent in spreading the virus.”

This is our built environment. More segregated cities where increasing numbers of people live in lethally toxic overcrowded residences, overcrowded both in their respective residences and in their neighborhoods; where cities pay more to sequester the overcrowded than to attend to them. More prisons, more prisoners, where, again, overcrowded goes hand-in-glove with drastic, even criminal underfunding; where administrations, from national to municipal and county, pay more to sequester the overcrowded than to attend to them. This is a small part of the story of how we learned to stop worrying about overcrowding and love the apartheid bomb.

(Photo Credit: Meridith Kohut / New York Times)

Covid Operations: We’re all in this together? 7 of the 10 largest Covid-19 clusters in the U.S. are jails and prisons. Do not look away.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, 7 of the 10 largest Covid-19 clusters in the United States are prisons and jails: Marion Correctional Institution, Marion, Ohio, 2,168 cases; Pickaway Correctional Institution, Scioto Township, Ohio, 1,632 cases; Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois, 812 cases; Cummins Unit prison, Grady, Arkansas, 695 cases; Neuse Correctional Institution, Goldsboro, N.C., 457 cases; Parnall Correctional Facility, Jackson, Michigan, 232 cases; Stateville Correctional Center, Cresthill, Illinois, 191 cases; for a grand total of 6187 reported cases, and that was yesterday. The numbers continue to rise. (For example, on Sunday, Marion Correctional reported 1828 cases among the prison population, 73% of the prisoners. As of yesterday, the number was 2168, a 6 percent increase in three days.) As of this afternoon, 26 states have fewer than 6100 reported cases. Really, what else is there to say? We made this particular mess, this is who we are, we built our own archipelago of death and now we are told we are all in “this” together. Do not look away.

In the past two days, two reports have come out, one concerning the certain catastrophe built into U.S. jails; the other concerning the certain catastrophe built into prisons and jails across the globe. While horrifying, none of this new or unknown.

According to a report by the ACLU and researchers from Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee, a failure, or better refusal, to reduce jail populations will result in an additional 100,000 to close to 200,000 deaths. Why? Overcrowding. “The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — with only 4 percent of the world’s population but 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated population …. Given the overcrowding and substandard conditions in most U.S. jails and prisons, standard public health interventions to `flatten the curve’ and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are simply not feasible. Most are unable to allow for six feet of social distancing among incarcerated people and staff and lack the facilities that allow for the recommended hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Moreover, the health care available in our nation’s jails is chronically substandard, further fueling the growth of the pandemic and increasing mortality rates among those infected while in jail …. Jails, in particular, also act as vectors for infection in their surrounding communities. Jails are revolving doors for incarceration and face 10.7 million admissions a year3. That’s an admission every three seconds in America.” None of this, absolutely none of this, is new or surprising. It’s bad, but it’s not startling.

According to a report issued today by Penal Reform International, with the Thailand Institute of Justice, what’s true of U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers is true as well for much of the world’s population. The report opens: “Over 11 million people are imprisoned globally, the highest number yet. Around 102 countries reported prison occupancy levels of over 110 per cent. The magnitude of issues and associated human rights violations stemming from over-imprisonment became clear in efforts to prevent and contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons.” Where in the incarcerated world are the women? In toxic, overcrowded, overly punitive, misogynistic, even femicidal prisons:  “Almost ten years since their adoption, the UN Bangkok Rules on women prisoners and non-custodial alternatives for women remain largely unimplemented. The global female prison population doubled in twenty years, yet justice systems and institutions remain largely designed for a homogeneous male population …. People who have not been found guilty of a crime outnumber convicted people in prison in at least 46 countries. Minorities, foreign nationals, women and the poorest people of our societies are all more likely to be detained on remand …. Prohibition-based drug policies have driven prison populations up. Over 2 million people are in prison for drug-related offences, 83 per cent of them serving a sentence for drug possession for personal use. A larger proportion of women than men are imprisoned for drug offences.” The report goes on to detail the particularities of abuse for the fastest growing prison population, globally as well as in the world’s leading incarcerator and leading proponent of incarceration as the only way forward. 

PRI’s Executive Director, Florian Irminger, summed up the four horsemen of today’s apocalypse, which is the apocalypse of the past four decades: “Overcrowding, lack of basic healthcare, limited access to clean water, inhumane living conditions.” None of this is new. It’s bad, but it’s not surprising. Overcrowding kills, overcrowding always has killed. As prison suicide and self-harm rates of the last four decades has shown, overcrowding morbidity has a woman’s face and body.  

We are told, and many of us would want to believe, that we are in this together. Together would mean that one doesn’t get to choose the outer boundaries of we. If we are in this together, let’s together end the overcrowding of prisons, jails, immigration centers, juvenile detention. Let’s not forget refugee camps: “As of May 2019, 90 per cent of the 73,000 people living in the al-Hol camp in Syria were women and children.” Wherever you are, local organizations and coalitions are organizing to empty the cells, immediately, and then to make sure that they are never again stocked with humans treated as so much trash. Reducing, and ending once and for all, overcrowding in carceral spaces is not rocket science. It simply involves all of us being in this together. Please, do not look away.

(Photo Credit: The Guardian/Tannen Maury/EPA) (Infographic Credit: ACLU)

South Africa’s Covid-19 economic stimulus plan: A chance to rethink or same old same old?

South Africa’s Covid-19 economic stimulus plan contains several of the features of a solid emergency plan, albeit cobbled together under the most unusual circumstances, at least on the surface. At 10% of GDP, far higher than Italy, Spain or the United Kingdom, it is one the largest stimulus packages in the world. To put this into further perspective the United States has committed 11% of its GDP to keeping the lights of its economy on.

President Ramaphosa’s announcement arrives at a time that global economic markets are haemorrhaging, a sad necessity of withdrawing large percentages of the working population from public spaces. Like so many components of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are presented with ongoing trade-offs and dilemmas all of which lead to their own paths of landmines. The largest fork in the road globally has been the cost of closing down the economy whilst livelihoods are increasingly precarious, many communities are restless, some families are starving to death. For countries in the Global South such as South Africa with lower welfare, this is all the more complicated by the uneven pace of dispensing relief to small businesses who employ the largest chunk of the employed workforce. The effort has been further hampered by the disgraceful diversion of food parcels to economically vulnerable communities by parts of the very state machinery that should be distributing relief.

That said, the plan offers clusters of intervention, many of which sound encouragingly social welfarist. It is not dissimilar to the basic income grant suggested by social policy analysts and formulated by several NGOS post 1994. As long ago as 2004, a coalition of NGOs, faith-based organisations and unions across SADC formulated well-researched funding models to finance this. They suggested that the Basic Income Grant (BIG) was affordable, particularly for South Africa, and noted that the political and economic history of South Africa would otherwise consistently reproduce the toxicity of racist and race based social and economic outcomes. These have produced the intergenerational, structural flaws in South Africa’s economy which no amount of foreign direct investment and market orthodox approaches of the past 22 years have resolved.

The proposals suggested a financing menu of diverse local taxes and strongly suggested that a universal grant would be part of a developmental social compact. So while painful, the Corona virus and the measures suggested by the President  might be bringing us closer to the recognition that structural deficits need to be addressed by investing into developing key sectors of the economy, enabling workers to remain in the economy and by cushioning those who are not able to participate in that economy.

Part of this compact is the R200 billion loan scheme to provide companies with relief to remain operational and to pay salaries. At a time when almost a third of the workforce have either been retrenched or are uncertain of their post lockdown future, a R50billion grant has been introduced to augment existing grants for a six-month period. Significantly, relief will be offered to people who are out of the current benefits matrix and receive neither Unemployment Insurance Fund benefits nor social grants.

The R100 billion grant to small businesses includes spazas and those often bypassed and ‘informalised’ by conventional market policy. These horizon industries, including chisa nyamas,   are largely bootstrap businesses that play a significant role in job creation,  community welfare and even a space to report domestic violence. They act as a meeting place for many, and the intimacy of the relationships represents an important part of community welfare in ways that larger supermarkets cannot replicate. During this virus, with limited transport, these outlets are the closest retailers. R70 billion in the proposal represents a tax respite for such businesses, including on skills development levies.

The second major fork in the plan is in the distribution of all this to various stakeholders. To be fully effective, cash transfers and relief subsidies must reach their intended targets including indigent communities, people in the parallel or ‘informal’ sector, and women who largely run household economics and are placed at the helm of social reproduction. They must also represent value for money. The modalities of transfer funds are risk-filled not least because the State itself has often been unreliable and corrupt. The perceptions around cash transfer programmes are often tainted with misinformation, poverty shaming and the idea that social grants or income support are for ‘free loading’ or ‘lazy’ social delinquents and ‘welfare queens’ rather than a recognition that these grants can enhance human capital and social engagement. It is also a form of risk sharing which potentially minimises the ongoing risk of huge parts of the population falling out of the social and economic compact, absent from the market economy. There is little evidence to support the view that child maintenance grants result in dependency.  This is the moment to reframe a socio-economic inclusiveness that is not biased towards corporates. If 2008 taught us nothing else, it’s that we cannot privilege companies over workers and families.

The strained and compromised SASSA machinery would require far greater capacity to minimise risk and maximise fast delivery. Conditional cash transfers linked to particular goods like school uniform, services like medical access or specific food items at listed outlets have often worked better than unconditional transfers in other developing economies to avert the flaws in the systems. The sustainability of these transfers and subsidies was debated as soon as the President mentioned the 6-month time horizon. Most economies, sectors, companies and families will still be on the difficult road to recovery beyond November 2020 and probably into the next 24 to 60 months.  

All this comes at a cost and herein is the final fork in the road, the IMF. The IMF presents a departure from South Africa’s correct historical aversion to securing their assistance. The IMF works on capital account liberalisation, removing barriers to flows of capital; and fiscal consolidation, or austerity. Structural conditions, or Structural Benchmarks (SBs), involve economic actions that require legislation and critical policy changes.

In 2008, in 21 countries over two decades, researchers demonstrated that IMF programme conditionalities help produce worsening health outcomes. Whilst this Corona inspired compact is an opportunity to rethink our economic model, it is crucial to appreciate that this moment is partly a manifestation of historical neglect and a market orthodox model. The solution in form of IMF and World Bank funding models may in fact lead to even more indebtedness and invidious conditionalities in future. A full cycle of market led, corporatist potential disaster. The real pandemic.

(Image Credit: Medialternatives)

For all the children I know and love, we can’t give up. But it sure as hell feels hopeless

Indefinite struggle

Here in Berks County, Pennsylvania, it is rainy and dreary, though the leaves are starting to pop up on the trees. I don’t know if the gray skies reflect my mood or if they create it. Probably both. I don’t work in a hospital. I’m not an ‘essential’ employee. I don’t live in a big city. So, it’s easy for COVID-19 to feel distant for me. But I’m reminded daily that COVID robbed my dearest friend of being with her 26-year-old son as he died. I think about how COVID-19 is seizing the elderly in nursing homes, dying a painful death instead of passing naturally in peace. Hospital workers are on the frontlines of a relentless battle. 

Please, don’t be complacent. 

Our President has never once mourned the dead. Terrorists are protesting that it’s their God given right to be free to get a haircut. At one point in my life, I might have dreamed we’d come out better, stronger after this; that we’d use this time wisely to reflect on all the wrong it brings into the harsh light and determine that we won’t go back there. That’s the way I work. This could be such a catalyst for change: for the planet, for the marginalized, if we had leaders with vision. 

We not only don’t have leaders with vision, we have “leaders” who don’t care whether we live or die, as long as we die working, who amplify hatred and division, who’ve hijacked every level of government, who’ve emboldened the idiotic masses. I know that, for my kids, for all the children I know and love, we can’t give up. But it sure as hell feels hopeless.

(Credit for `Indefinite struggle’, from Under the Unminding Sky by Gregory Thielker: Gregory Thielker)