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)

Oklahoma: Time to shut down debtors’ prisons and jails

Since 2010, sheriffs across Oklahoma have used bail collection as a means to wage war on the poor and to enrich themselves. That helps explain why Oklahoma is the Number One incarcerator of women in the United States, disproportionately Black and Native American,  and Number Two incarcerator of men. Last November, Ira Lee Wilkins, an indigent Tulsa resident, sued to stop the fine and cost collection system. At that time, Wilkins had two local attorneys. On February 1, 2018, an amended complaint was filed. Ira Lee Wilkins has been joined by Carly Graff, Randy Frazier, David Smith, Kendallia Killman, Linda Meachum, and Christopher Choate. Two national criminal justice law firms joined two attorneys. Together these women and men are saying NO! to a system that converts the most vulnerable into walking ATMs. In so doing, they join those in Texas challenging fine collection systems, and those in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia who have successfully challenged the cycle. The time to shut down debtors’ prisons and jails is long past.

While the stories of the complainants are heartrending, the real story here are the plaintiffs, in particular the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association and Aberdeen Enterprizes II, Inc. In 1991, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association was formed as a private entity, and was almost immediately drenched in scandals involving embezzlement. Then, the Association’s world changed. In 2003, it was allowed to have a role in misdemeanor fine collections. In 2010, that role was expanded to include felonies and traffic tickets. At the end of 2009, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association had $40,686 in the bank. At the end of 2016, that number was $2.8 million.

Aberdeen Enterprizes was founded in 2006 “by a disbarred attorney after he was released from federal prison for bankruptcy fraud.” According to the suit, “Aberdeen Enterprizes II, Inc. (“Aberdeen, Inc.”) is a for-profit Oklahoma corporation registered to do business in Oklahoma. Aberdeen, Inc. contracted with Defendant Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association to collect court debts owed in court cases arising in 54 counties throughout Oklahoma. The Agreement provides that Aberdeen, Inc. receives a percentage of the money that it collects. Aberdeen, Inc.’s cut of the money that it collects constitutes Aberdeen, Inc.’s sole revenue source.” Aberdeen’s cut of the money is the only money Aberdeen has.

The sheriff’s private association grows rich. The company doing the dirty work depends on intimidation and extortion to survive and thrive. The jails and prisons are choking with overpopulation, and everyone wonders how this happened. Oklahoma is open for business.

Kendallia Killman is 48 years old, indigent, and the caretaker of her intellectually disabled adult son. They live on monthly disability payments of $543. In 2009, Kendallia Killman was fined for two misdemeanors. She couldn’t pay the fees and fines, and tried to negotiate an arrangement. In 2015, her file was turned over to Aberdeen, who told her that she had to pay a lump sum of $1000. She called Aberdeen and offered to pay $25 a month. Aberdeen hung up on her. This happened more than once. Now there’s a failure to pay warrant, and Kendallia Killman lives in constant fear of being arrested: “When these police departments sent this to Aberdeen, they took out the humanity part of it. … They took out having to see people and seeing the hurt and seeing the pain”.

Carly Graff, 40 years old, mother of two, has a single traffic ticket. She can’t pay the fees and fines. Half the time she can’t afford to pay for food or electricity. She didn’t pay the fees and fines, and a warrant, and more fees and fines, were issued. Aberdeen now has her file: “Ms. Graff now lives in constant fear of arrest and does not leave her home unless necessary to care for her children because she is so afraid of being taken to jail for nonpayment.”

Linda Meachum, 58 years old, disabled by domestic violence, living on $244 a month, knows the same fear. Arrested for a misdemeanor, Linda Meachum spent a month in jail and was ordered to pay $200 fine and court fees. She set up a plan to pay $40 a month. Then she lost her job. Then her file went to Aberdeen, who insisted on at least $75 a month. She couldn’t pay. A warrant was issued, and Linda Meachum went back to jail. Now she owes $800, and still can’t pay: “She has no money to pay Aberdeen, Inc. and fears that she will be arrested for nonpayment of court debt.”

In Oklahoma, big money is made extracting impossible value from the poorest of the poor through an ever expanding ever intensifying system of constant fear and terror. That’s criminal justice. It’s time to shut the whole system down.

(Infographic Credit 1: The Oklahoman) (Infographic Credit 2: Scott Pham / Reveal)

Resistance in the age of registries and internment

The headline reads, “Japanese American internment is ‘precedent’ for national Muslim registry, prominent Trump backer says”.

Prisons do not and will never make us safer. Everything along the spectrum that includes racist “internment camps”, which are prisons by another name, and a “national registry” of people who are Muslim is a hastening and intensifying of carcerality in our society. To be clear, the United States already has racist prisons. They’re called jails and prisons. And we already have prisons for immigrants in our country. They’re called detention centers, and the people imprisoned in them are often not counted in published numbers about this country’s gargantuan prison population.

In a fascist moment, the mode of resistance is clear: to imbue your every action with anti-fascism. This means that if there is a national registry of people who are Muslim or who are perceived to be Muslim, all people of all faiths and backgrounds need to go register for it. This means opening your home to your neighbors or to anyone who needs to hide. Solidarity is not even an option, it’s the choice of survival over necropolitics. Are you still in denial, do you still think this is far-fetched?

As everyone tries to process current events, I see people drawing a lot of comparisons between this moment and Nazi Germany. Those comparisons are important and not melodramatic, but there are some issues with them.

First, the comparison implies that previously this country wasn’t already a white-supremacist nation, wasn’t founded on racism, genocide, and slavery; hasn’t been a bloody colonizer, hasn’t destabilized/invaded other countries, hasn’t created classes of citizens that put some closer to survival and some to death. Of course, it has. And it has already been rounding up people based on ethnicity/nationality and sending them out of the country, in the millions, already. Most of all under Obama, sorry-not-sorry. The only answer to this systemic violence is to demand an abolition of borders themselves.

Second, the comparison brings us to a question of citizenship and legality, and again I see people missing some aspects of that. For example, the idea that the difference (between now and Nazi Germany) is that Jewish people WERE citizens, while undocumented people here are not. Let’s unpack that. Citizenship — and laws themselves — is not a divine mandate, nor an intrinsic natural feature. Actually, the idea that citizenship/lawfulness IS a natural feature is a tenet of Nazism, of eugenics, of racism. (I’d say “antisemitism” but the category “Semite” itself is a racist and meaningless invention, and doesn’t actually specifically refer to Jews.) Citizenship is, the law is, arbitrary and ever changing. It operates on the whim of the state, and it is a weapon that can be deployed against anyone. Citizenship is NOT a stable category. YOUR citizenship, if you have it, will NOT protect you. Your whiteness, if you have it, will not protect you. If you stand idly by while people are deported/rounded up/added to a registry, you’re not only complicit, you’re ignorant. If it can happen to anyone, it could happen to everyone. This is why our demand must be an abolition of borders and other forms of violent containment, including prisons, poverty — capitalism.

“If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.”
 Angela Davis

“If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” James Baldwin

(Photo Credit 1: Intro to Women’s Studies S12) (Photo Credit 2: Fortune / Michael B. Thomas / AFP)