Skip to main content

Abolitionist Steps to Combat COVID-19 Behind Bars

As communities across the world are confronting the serious toll of COVID-19..., we at Critical Resistance want to amplify the grave concerns facing the imprisoned population, which is one of the most vulnerable groups in this time.

Critical Resistance
Business as usual has been interrupted during this public health crisis, and governments and everyday people are looking to take drastic measures that will address the needs of the moment.

Abolitionist measures, while often brushed off as drastic by mainstream voices, are now being lifted up as the most effective and practical steps to protect the health of people under the control of the prison industrial complex (PIC) during the spread of COVID-19.

As enclosed and locked facilities, prisons, jails, and detention centers are uniquely positioned as places ripe for the rapid spread of diseases. As the Health Affairs journal notes, “Prisons push people into the path of pandemics.” They are by nature unsafe and unhealthy institutions; with meager access to healthcare at best, and routine negligence and violence as the norm, imprisoned people will likely be among the hardest hit by COVID-19.

The Prison Policy Initiative, among other organizations, have laid out some key steps and policy recommendations to address the threat of COVID-19 among prisoners, which include releasing elderly prisoners and those with medical needs, reducing the number of people coming into jails, and stopping the practice of re-arresting and imprisoning people for technical probation and parole violations. These are often central demands in our campaigns, as they are practical and liberatory steps to decarceration. We fully support these recommendations, and believe that we must go further. For instance, Iran has released 70,000 prisoners (which accounts for around 30% of its entire prison population) to mitigate the spread of the disease in prisons, and there are still demands for more to be released.

The US holds the world’s largest share of imprisoned people – we must demand bold reductions in the number of people locked up if we are to avert a full scale disaster for our community members and loved ones behind bars. Here are some demands we are uplifting:
  • Compassionate, Medical, and Elder Release.
    • Release all people who have underlying health conditions, are 50 years or older, are pregnant, or have any other needs or concerns that pose increased risk from COVID-19.
  • Commute the sentences of people serving Life Without Parole.
  • Release all people in jails held pretrial.
  • Reduce police contact with communities that would lead to arrest and jail, and put an immediate end to quality of life policing.
  • Release all people from detention centers, and stop all immigration enforcement operations
  • Access to free and quality healthcare, and free healthcare and sanitation supplies for all imprisoned people.
    • In New York for instance, prisoners are working to make hand sanitizer for the use by people on the outside, but are themselves banned by the prison regime for having access to because of its alcohol content. Sign this petition to demand the release of people in NY. 
Currently, partners in California and across the country are moving rapidly to bring these demands into campaigns to close jails in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and to invest in the systems we need instead. We invite communities everywhere to do the same.

As with all of our efforts to abolish the PIC, we must simultaneously be building up the supportive resources that allow for strong and healthy communities. For instance, especially during a public health crisis, we must demand the radical expansion of guaranteed access to healthcare and housing both for people inside and outside of cages. Further, we hope that this moment gives us urgency to bring abolition and expansive healthcare from the margins to the center. And we must emphasize—we must not only build with our usual movement partners who regularly fight the PIC, but with a broad and united front of organizations across sectors and geographies that care deeply about people’s wellbeing. This is a time for collaboration and connecting issues. Public health and eliminating the violence of the PIC are all of our concerns.

The dire circumstances we are all facing open up the horizon for radical demands and actions to be understood as necessary common sense measures, and we lift up abolition as a necessary path to bolster the health and wellbeing of our communities – with or without a crisis.

In Struggle,
Critical Resistance