The time to act to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our nations’ correctional facilities is now

The United States now has the highest number of people who have contracted COVID-19, and the greatest number who have died as a result of it. But the distribution of people who have been affected is not even. Some people and settings are more vulnerable than others. Since the United States has the highest incarceration rates, it is not surprising that COVID-19 has hit jails and prisons and the people who both live and work there hard.

Correctional facilities are breeding grounds for sickness and the transmission of viruses. Why? They are notoriously dirty places, their HVAC systems are typically obsolete and poorly maintained so bacteria and germs thrive, and health care behind bars is rationed and of poor quality. More importantly, it is difficult for those who are incarcerated to socially distance from fellow prisoners who may be afflicted by many numerous communicable diseases, including COVID-19. Inmates are not the only people infected. Correctional workers, from officers to administrators, who interact with prisoners on a daily basis are also exposed to the same risks. In short, jails, prisons and other correctional facilities make you sick and are nasty places to be sick.

Indeed there have been calls by prisoners, their loved ones, activists and allied organizations to release as many people as possible from correctional facilities. Among those who have been released, it is not entirely clear what “being released” means. In some jurisdictions judges and prison administrators are proposing that inmates should be released until the COVID -19 scare is over or we have significantly “flattened the curve.” But correctional institutions and governments, at all levels, have been slow to respond to these calls. Jurisdictions are reluctant to release prisoners into the community because they fear that these individuals might reoffend, infect other people in the community, or become infected themselves.

This view finds support from members of the public who believe that all prisoners are dangerous and rabidly hyper violent. In fact, a large proportion of people incarcerated in correctional facilities are nonviolent, and those who have served many years behind bars have lower probabilities of reoffending than the general population. Thus releasing a substantial portion of prison and jail populations, who shouldn’t be incarcerated or for so long, would not represent a significant risk to the public and will end up saving lives .

Every day, my twitter feed, includes numerous news reports about the number of inmates who have been infected or died, or correctional facilities that have experienced enormous outbreaks of COVID-19. Also, we now have two relevant data bases (@CovidPrisonData & @Covid19Prisons). One tracks the number of people who are infected in prison and the other amalgamates policies and practices that countries throughout the world are considering or are already using to deal minimize or prevent prisoners from being exposed to the coronavirus. This data is publicly available. Thus neither lack of data nor access to it can be used an excuse to act to alleviate the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. As it is painfully clear the debacle is primarily due to incompetence, inertia, or poor decision-making at the secretary of corrections levels in most states where the Department of Corrections have failed to act. This situation is more dire because as I write this, large numbers of inmates and correctional officers are being infected and some are dying.

Over the last four months, we have seen some unspeakable tragedies that shock the conscience of most caring people in the free world. In a country that prides itself on upholding and protecting human and civil rights, the failure to demonstrate responsible leadership toward people behind bars confronting COVID-19 at the federal, state, and local levels is not only inhumane, but also shocking in its blatant disregard for human life. If we’re appalled and shocked by this and do not recognize our country, then voting in November is one way make this right.

If our essential workers are so important, why aren’t we properly protecting them?

No one can forget that we’re in a middle of a global pandemic. Despite the lack of cohesive federal policy, and the fact that our leaders flip flop on whether businesses and schools should open or close, we should wear masks or not, most rational, sane, and financially solvent people stay home as much as possible, and order online even basic things such as groceries. But there is also a large group of people, our “essential” workers who don’t have the luxury or choice to stay at home. These are the folks in the trenches, the first responders, the people filling our orders, delivering our mail, taking care of us at hospitals and clinics, driving our buses, and harvesting our food. These people are essential because what they do allow the rest of us to stay at home to weather the storm.

The COVID-19 has exposed the deeply rooted class divisions, racial injustice, and economic inequality that are part of the fabric of our society. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the lucky ones. You are a desk jockey. You can perform your job from the comfort of your home, via computer and a good internet connection.

And, I’m not minimizing the strain and discomfort that the effects of COVID-19 have imposed on all of us. If you’re part of the lucky group and have children, you’ve been essentially home-schooling them since March while also trying to work and keep your job. Stressful and fatiguing are understatements. However, our “essential” workers have it worse. If you’re working on a job where the possibilities for social distancing are next to impossible and where you’re less than one-paycheck away from being evicted, then your stress levels are exponential and almost untenable.

Public and private organizations are responding to this inequality in ways that are yet to be seen effective. The message seems to be that we should all do our part and help our essential workers. We are urged to give delivery drivers bigger tips, hang signs on our front doors honoring their work, and support gofundme’s for businesses that have laid off or furloughed their workers. We even have a catchy theme song, “Good Job,” a veritable upbeat pat on the back, written and performed by New York City based musician Alicia Keys, who narrates how much we depend on and appreciate these people. Although these efforts demonstrate our collective good will and they are better than doing nothing, it’s really only a drop in the bucket of financial and emotional support that essential workers need to make it through this pandemic without getting sick or getting evicted.

What do we need? We need a lot and pronto. Thus far, we see some efforts, but it’s too early to determine how effective they will be in the long term. For instance, some businesses and organizations have reconfigured their physical work places to encourage social distancing by establishing barriers that separate workers or workers from customers. Many supermarkets now limit the number of people who can enter at any given time, require customers to wear a mask, and are constantly disinfecting surfaces and carts. These things are helpful and may prove really important in keeping our essential workers safe and the economy running. But, there are many of us who for some twisted logic insist in not adhering to these simple health-mandated rules.

The theme of “we can open but safely” seems to be the chant of many corporations and educational institutions, and politicians. They point to countries such as China, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, who have managed to rearrange their work sites, retail businesses, and schools to permit some measure of normalcy. But it is wrong to compare our strategy (or lack thereof) to these countries. These countries, unlike the United States, had a coordinated effort and very early in the game strictly imposed lock-downs, had massive testing, quarantined those infected, and had serious contact tracing. Unlike the countries that have flattened the curve we have no national policy and thus are subject to one of the highest rates of infection and deaths in the world.

That’s why many so many Americans are skittish about returning to work. Why? When you leave your home, there are large swaths of people who don’t wear face masks and don’t social distance. You increase your risk of contracting Corona virus when you come into contact with them, whether they care or not.

So I ask you these questions. Does your boss really care if you get sick or you die because of COVID-19? If he or she kind of likes you, then the answer will be “Maybe.” Does the owner or the shareholder of the corporation you work for care? Probably not. And don’t let those television advertising spots from corporations with the messages of “we are all in this together” and we’ve donated $2 million to organizations to help people in need fool you. (These amounts are simply drops in the bucket, anyways compared to what they paid in advertising to get their messages out). Any sideways glance at the unemployment numbers and you are going to quickly conclude that you are replaceable. Nowhere was this recently put in to bold relief when selected owners of large meat, pork and poultry processing plants in states like Georgia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota told their workers “You’re feeding America.” This appeal to patriotism was thinly veiled consolation for people who were dropping by the buckets from COVID-19.

What does this mean? Do you really want to be a martyr for capitalism? Probably not.

In the meantime as a socio-economic system that now pretends to care about essential workers, but generally fails to improve their working conditions and pay them a decent wage, we will muddle along, more people will contract the COVID-19 virus and a large percentage of them will die. This will place their loved ones in greater financial and emotional distress.

True societal change will only occur only when the political system recognizes and embraces as its primary mission not to let others less fortunate than us slip through the cracks and not see this as the role of charities, philanthropists, and religious organizations.

Time to remove offensive memorials, monuments, and statues

From buildings, to parks, to museums, cities have erected monuments, statues, and memorials in public spaces.

These structures vary in size; they can be as big as a building, or as small as a plaque.

They force people to interchangeably honor, celebrate, commemorate, and/or remember incidents and people who were at one point in time deemed important in the history of that place and space. But history marches on, people change, and so does the culture.

There is no universal law that suggests that public statutes and memorials must remain in perpetuity where they were erected, or exist at all. Objects placed in our public spaces can change with time, citizen preferences, economic conditions, and cultural shifts. In fact, most cities in post industrialized democracies recognize this situation. That is why there is usually a branch of government, such as a department of public works, that overseas public monuments, and sometimes there is a committee that represents different constituencies that reviews these sorts of things. The process, however, gets into trouble when it is out of sync with contemporary culture and current history.

At the center of the current controversy facing our nation and others, are statutes of racists, colonizers, individuals who led campaigns of genocide, and symbols thereof (e.g., the confederate flag).

The recent (May/June 2020) protests against the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis highlighted the pervasive racial injustice that has persisted throughout the 200 year history of the United States. This sentiment has prompted an upsurge in graffiti and street art placed on monuments, and in some cases the tearing down of controversial statutes throughout the world. The result has been copious news and social media attention and city, state, and federal governments spending lots of resources (either abating the graffiti and street art, or paying law enforcement salaries to protect the memorials).

Opposition to these statues and memorials did not start in the last three weeks. This process has been being playing out since the erection of the monuments. Opposition ebbs and flows, due to lots of factors including burn out by different political actors.

The reality of the day, however, is that we have come to a crescendo of opposition and social condemnation of the flagrant display that seems to celebrate the worst individuals and chapters in our collective history. Committees that review requests for erecting and mothballing statutes etc. and city councils (and county executives) can wait no longer. It is time for them to act, and to act fast before we recreate the storming of the bastille scenarios we have recently witnessed, where activists, bystanders, and public safety get hurt in the melees that are appearing in these contexts.