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)

Covid Operations: The laws be damned, evictions continue. Stop them now!

On Tuesday, April 14, Alexandria City Councilmember Canek Aguirre introduced a resolution to the City Council to freeze rents, mortgages and negative credit reporting: “No resident who has lost income should be required to pay rent during this public health emergency, nor should they accumulate debt for unpaid rent.” The City Council unanimously approved the resolution. Across the United States and around the world, the good news is that governments at all levels are enacting bills that freeze rents and mortgage payments as well as banning evictions. The bad news is that eviction notices are still going out and, even worse, evictions are still ongoing, in the very places where they have been banned. We have to talk about evictions and try to understand what’s going on.

First, the good news, from the past week or so. On Tuesday, in California, the San Jose City Council voted to extend a local moratorium on residential evictions until May 31, along with other renter protections. (Earlier in the month, California’s state legislature passed an eviction freeze that will last until 90 days after California’s state of emergency is lifted. While that in itself would be good news, better is that the legislature’s action took an earlier moratorium, by the Governor, and gave it sharper teeth and more muscle.) On Thursday, Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington, expanded and extended Washington’s eviction moratorium, and added additional protections. In Massachusetts, on Friday, the state legislature passed legislation that would ban evictions and foreclosures, and sent that on to the Governor to signOn Friday, David Ige, Governor of Hawaii, declared a moratorium on evictions; and Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, extended Michigan’s eviction moratorium until May 15

 In India, on Friday, the Indian state of Maharashtra “asked landlords to postpone rent recovery from tenants for at least three months … [and] not to drive tenants out of their homes if they fail to pay rents during the current period.” On Monday, the South African government reiterated the national suspension of evictions during the national lockdown. Finally, in the United States, that national government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, aka the CARES Act, which precludes being served with an eviction until July 25, 2020, along with a few other protections. With all these bans and moratoria, everything should be fine, right? Wrong.

On Thursday, Pro Publica reported that in at least four states – Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida – landlords continued to file eviction notices, despite the national ban, and suffered no negative consequences. What’s that you say about ignorance of the law being no excuse? Not when it comes to evictions, apparently. In California, in violation of both federal and even stronger state laws, landlords are threatening to evict and are evicting tenants. While both are illegal, actually evicting tenants means local law enforcement actually arrive at the residences and forcibly remove tenants. In Michigan, a landlord sent seven-day eviction notices to 80 tenants and explained that he had to, so as to “fulfill fiduciary responsibilities” to lenders. The law of lenders supersedes the law of both Michigan and the United States. The same story in LouisianaArizonaMissouri. Despite local and national legislation, across the United States, people are being evicted.

Likewise, in South Africa, despite a national moratorium on evictions, local jurisdictions have sent in police and special forces, colloquially know as Red Ants. to evict residents, most egregiously perhaps in Durban and Cape Town where they entered informal settlements, destroyed shacks, and `removed’ entire populations. Why does that sound familiar?

What is the investment in evictions? There’s the financial investment, but there’s more. In this period where staying at home, whatever that home looks like, can mean staying alive, what `inspires’ police and their avatars, who are just people like you and me, to render individuals, families, communities homeless, to turn fellow human beings into raw material for the global manufacturing of death and destruction? While the excuses and explanations are manifold and easily available, they all fall short when you put them face-to-face with the people who actually do the deed. What is our investment in evictions that, despite everything we know and think we know and feel and think we feel, we let them go on, a little dissipated in volume and velocity, perhaps, but as lethal as ever? 

(Credit for Everett Shinn, Eviction (Lower East Side): Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Covid Operations: The ticking time bomb has a dangerous history

In the era of Covid-19, in the current pandemic moment, the world has “discovered” that prisons, jails, immigration detention or removal centers, juvenile detention centers, and any place of confinement is predictably overcrowded, under-resourced, and, suddenly, dangerous to our public health. This “discovery” is described as the time bomb or, more dramatically, the ticking time bomb. While the ticking time bomb scenario suggests concern for the incarcerated and those who work within incarcerated spaces, the phrase “ticking time bomb” has its own history, especially in the last twenty years, a history we would do well to recall.

Here are some ticking time bomb scenarios from the past 24 hours or so. Across the United States, “rural America is left with not only a health care crisis but a potential ticking time bomb if these jails become hot spots of contagion.” Meanwhile, there’s a “health time bomb that could all too easily detonate in locked juvenile facilities.” In Wisconsin, the local ACLU explains, “Right now Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons are a ticking time bomb that threatens the health of all Wisconsinites, especially people of color who are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration”. In Mexico, the shelters along migrants’ routes understand that lack of information and misinformation can create its own time bomb: “We try to avoid this sort of mass panic among the people in the shelter, because that could be a time bomb.” In Panama, “overcrowding in prisons is seen as a time bomb”. In Haiti, “the prison network is an epidemiological ticking time bomb.” Peru’s prisons are “a time bomb” as are those in Colombia, the Dominican Republic. In the Philippines, “jails are a COVID-19 time bomb”.  Overcrowded Cambodian prisons and drug detention centres “are a ticking time bomb for the country and potentially its neighbours.”

That’s 24 hours, and that’s 24 hours. Remember the television series, 24, in which counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, every week, found himself in a situation in which he had 24 hours in which to stop a massive terrorist attack? The fact that there was a finite, definite and even definitive time frame meant that Bauer could ethicallytorture suspects in order to gain the vital information. That, in a nutshell, is the ticking time bomb scenario. From September 11 on, for well over a decade, a subject of passionate debate among some was whether or not torture was ever justified, much less ethical. Despite so-called liberal traditions, some claimed that within weeks, the U.S. populace overwhelmingly embraced the logic of the ticking time bomb. 

While the ticking time scenario lit up the recent and long dark night of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and beyond, its origins are said to Jeremy Bentham’s 1804 essay “Means of extraction for extraordinary occasions”: “Suppose an occasion to arise, in which a suspicion is entertained, as strong as that which would be received as a sufficient ground for arrest and commitment as for felony — a suspicion that at this very time a considerable number of individuals are actually suffering, by illegal violence inflictions equal in intensity to those which if inflicted by the hand of justice, would universally be spoken of under the name of torture. For the purpose of rescuing from torture these hundred innocents, should any scruple be made of applying equal or superior torture, to extract the requisite information from the mouth of one criminal, who having it in his power to make known the place where at this time the enormity was practicing or about to be practiced, should refuse to do so?”

For over 200 years, so-called liberal democracies officially took on that supposition and rejected it. In 2001, that all seemed to change. What changed was not the practice of torture but the official practice of torture; what changed was also the ostensible vox populi. The point is that, historically, the invocation of a ticking time bomb has been more than a warning of impending and catastrophic violence and harm. The invocation of the ticking time bomb has been used to justify the abrogation of due process, of Constitutionally protected rights, and of both humanity and a sense of humanity. Remember that. Those currently living in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers face the real and immediate danger of deaths in epic number. They need neither discoveries nor metaphors; they deserve dignity and respect, and they need to be released now.  

(Image Credit: San Francisco Gate)

Covid Operations: Where is the State that practices grace?

For many religious and faith-based communities, these are days of thanks and reflection. Easter. Passover. Ramadan. Days of grace, days of saying grace. Where is the State of grace, where is the nation-State that practices, that is made of practices of, pardon, forgiveness, clemency, mercy? Where is the nation-State whose actions form a daily and constitutive prayer of grace? Where is the State that is grateful for humanity?

Here’s some news from the past day or so. Predictably, the national iterations of the global lockdown has “resulted” in a spike in domestic violence, especially in home-based violence against women and girls: ZimbabweSouth Africa,  Trinidad and TobagoMexicoIndiaChinaFranceSpainItaly,  across the United States, and around the world. This spike was predictable, and national governments did nothing, often did less than and worse than nothing, to address the “shadow pandemic”. In many ways, the reporting naturalizes the situation. Boys will be boys, men will be men, women will be beaten and sacrificed. It’s a shame, but really … what can we do? We can shut off access to reproductive health, GBV survivors’ support, and HIV testing. We can do that. While some have noted the ways in which individual national responses “are failing women”, the situation is more direct, aggressive and violent. Nation-States have sacrificed women, en masse and particularly, reprising the femicidal practices of witch hunts, replete with sanctimonious speeches of rule of law, morality and faith. These are days of thanks and reflections, days of grace.

Where is the State that practices grace? While Governors and individual state Departments of Correction debate releasing prisoners to avert a prison-based massacre, at the national level, the United States government has “quietly” ended asylum processes and sped up deportation proceedings. In the past couple weeks, the United States has expelled 6,300 “undocumented migrants”, including unaccompanied children. Children at the border are being turned away rather than turned over to shelters. Children already in shelters are being forced to go to court, often without any legal representation, and then are shipped off like so much cargo. First, we reiterate the witch hunt, then we repeat the human cargo ships of the slave trade. And then we say grace. 

A while ago, Korean-American poet Emily Yungmin Yoon also reflected on how `we’ say grace, how the nation-State says grace:

Say Grace

In my country our shamans were women
and our gods multiple until white people brought
an ecstasy of rosaries and our cities today
glow with crosses like graveyards. As a child
in Sunday school I was told I’d go to hell
if I didn’t believe in God. Our teacher was a woman
whose daughters wanted to be nuns and I asked
What about babies and what about Buddha, and she said
They’re in hell too and so I memorized prayers
and recited them in front of women
I did not believe in. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet Virgin Mary, amen. O sweet. O sweet.
In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet, O sweet. In this country,
point at the moon, at the stars, point at the way the lake lies,
with a hand full of feathers,
and they will look at the feathers. And kill you for it.
If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic
so be it, let us have magic. Let us have
our own mothers and scarves, our spirits,
our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep
our stars to ourselves and we shall pray
to no one. Let us eat
what makes us holy.”

Amen.

(Image of Lantern Tree by Georgia O’Keeffe: Wadsworth Atheneum)

Covid Operations: Be a force of kindness, not of might. Close the detention centers!

“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”  Matthew 7

South Africa is in the second day of a 21-day lockdown, monitored and enforced by the police and armed forces, as well as neighbors, family and other less threatening people. Before sending the armed forces to wander the streets where people live and, for the rare few, work, President Cyril Ramaphosa urged the army to “be a force of kindness and not of might. Deliver your duties in a way that does not violate our people’s rights either intentionally or unintentionally.” Be a force of kindness, and not of might. On the same day that invocation of kindness was reported, it was also reported that the city of Swakopmund, in Namibia, would provide free water to those living in its informal settlements. The day before it was reported that Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek, would reconnect “defaulters’ water”. We are awash in stories of kindness and unkindness, and we will be judged by the deeds we do and the words we say and write. At the same time, so many of the reports of “acts of kindness” are individual acts, acts within and of civil society writ large, and not acts of the state. While individual acts matter terrifically, as we have learned to our detriment in the United States, the nation-State must be the State as well as the nation. 

Be a force of kindness, not of might. Tell that to ICE and its supporters. On March 21, ALDEA-The People’s Justice Center in Reading, the Rapid Defense Network in New York, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, in San Antonio, Texas, representing scores of children, sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney General. Their suit opens: “This case presents the question of whether the government can recklessly expose Petitioners … to conscious shocking risk of exposure to contracting the deadly Covid-19 virus in the midst of a global pandemic by failing to take the most minimal precautions to prepare for the all too foreseeable catastrophe in crowded family detention. The answer is no.” Berks. Dilley. Karnes. The answer is no.

In the three so-called family detention centers, people are living in close quarters with little to no attention to sanitation or hygiene, “a tinderbox that, once sparked, will create a crisis that threatens the lives of women, men and children”. In Dilley, a pregnant Honduran woman, identified as O.M.G., stays with her 4-year-old daughter, who has started coughing, “I must be close to others all the time. I fear for my life, and the life of my daughter and unborn child.” In Berks, a 5-year-old was taken to the hospital after weeks of coughing. According to Bridget Cambria, Executive Director of Aldea, that girl won’t be the last child whose health is endangered at Berks, “Children can’t social distance on their own. They’re going to put things in their mouth. They’re going to touch other children. It’s not like people can go to a different room to be by themselves.

Across the country, the stories of immigrant detention come to the same conclusion, “It’s basically torture.” And it’s not only women and children being tortured. This week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued to release elderly and infirm `detainees’, more like hostages, from immigrant detention centers. In San Diego, people seeking asylum end up in “the Icebox”, “La Hielera”, where the temperature is kept intentionally extremely low, and of course it’s overcrowded. From sea to shining sea … 

There is a saying in Zulu, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”. A person is a person through other people. Ubuntu. I am because you are. I am because, together, we are, mutually, reciprocally. Once upon a time, a long long time ago, the word “kind” was an active, transitive verb, meaning to treat kindly or with good will. You could kind someone, we could kind one another. Once upon a time, a long long time ago … 

(Image Credit: Velaphi Mzimba / Everard Read – Cape Town) (Video: YouTube)

Covid Operations: What happened to a half century of mass incarceration? Covid-19

In the past week, news agencies and advocacy organizations have discussed the role of prisons and jails in spreading the novel coronavirus. Some are longstanding advocates for just solutions to the incarceration crisis; others, especially news agencies, are just now `discovering’ that prisons, jails and immigration detention centers form an archipelago of infectious morbidity and mortality. Headlines from the past three days include: To Arrest the Spread of Coronavirus, Arrest Fewer People.  Visits halted in federal prisons, immigration centers over virusHow Coronavirus Could Affect U.S. Jails and PrisonsPrisons And Jails Worry About Becoming Coronavirus ‘Incubators’Our Courts and Jails Are Putting Lives at RiskTo contain coronavirus, release people in prison. In Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center noted, “Adults and youth held in Virginia’s prisons, jails, and detention centers are particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease and deserve to be protected with adequate sanitation and medical care or, if possible, be released.” England and Wales developed “emergency plans to avoid disruption” in their prisons. Also in England, immigrant advocates called on the government to release hundreds of immigration detention center detainees, noting, “There is a very real risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in immigration detention”. In France, prisoners, supporters, staff, and advocates are concerned and see no way out of coronavirus running rampant through the prison system.

While this attention is welcome, the question that lingers, and haunts, the current carceral controversy is, “Why now?” Public health researchers have long documented prisons’ role in the spread of infectious disease. From a public health perspective, prisons so dangerous because they’re overcrowded and their systems of care provision, such as they are, have intentionally gone from bad to worse. A half century of mass incarceration married to a global programme of austerity has left us with prisons waiting to pump out HIV and AIDS, TB, Ebola, SARS, opioid addiction, and now Covid-19. 

Earlier this year, a special issue of The Lancet began as follows, “About 11 million people are currently being held in custody across the globe and more than 30 million individuals pass through prisons each year, often for short but disruptive periods of time .… The health profile of the detained population is complex, often with co-occurring physical and mental health disorders, and a backdrop of social disadvantage. Detention can also expose people to new and increased health risks, yet the profiles of the population behind bars and their health needs have often been neglected.”

Last year, The Lancet editorial board noted, “The sheer scale of imprisonment in the USA and its unequal burden on people from minority and poor backgrounds raises concerns about its impact on the health and wellbeing of the national population …. Being in prison worsens several health outcomes and might even drive the spread of disease.” Elsewhere, medical researchers noted, “There is a growing epidemic of inadequate health care in U.S. prisons. Shrinking prison budgets, a prison population that is the highest in the world, and for-profit health care contracts all contribute to this epidemic.”

Inadequate health care in prisons across the globe is the growing pandemic that preceded the current pandemic. Where are the women in this pandemic scenario? Women are the fastest growing prison population. What does that “growth” look like? “As adults, women who are incarcerated have enduring reproductive health issues such as unintended pregnancies, adverse birth outcomes, cervical dysplasia and malignancy, and sexually transmitted infections. Women who are pregnant or parenting a newborn during their incarceration are at high risk for poor outcomes, and just like individuals in the community they need prenatal care, supports with labor, postpartum bonding, and breast-feeding support. Women who have returned to the community or are under community supervision face similar health issues as women who are incarcerated and may lack access to care.”

Repeatedly, public health researchers have described the situation in prisons and jails as a crisis. For women – and especially women of color and poor women – that crisis stretches across their lifespan in two ways. First, the health consequences of even short stays in detention endure a lifetime. Second, detention itself lasts a lifetime: “Over 1.2 million women in the United States were on probation, parole, or incarcerated in jail or prison facilities at the end of 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.”

The decades of mass incarceration, in which women have consistently been the fastest growing prison population, are built on systemic neglect. While the current pandemic is in no sense an opportunity, it is a moment in which we can turn that neglect on itself and pay attention, not only to this particular instant but to the decades that prepared the ground, toxically, for it. Immigrant detentionjailprison are always bad for health. The only route to a healthy world is decarceration.

(Image Credit: Prison Policy Initiative)