Members of Party for Socialism and Liberation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania recently initiated a campaign to demand action to protect the lives of incarcerated people. Earlier this month, PSL organizers put out two calls to action — a phone zap to the president judge for the county and a car demo to be held outside the Lancaster County Prison.
For the phone zap, community members were encouraged to call President Judge David Ashworth and push for three demands: 1) release elderly and sick inmates, 2) increase medical staff within the facility, and 3) release inmates who are awaiting trial. In March, Judge Ashworth had established criteria to begin releasing inmates to reduce the risks of exposure to COVID-19. Only about 100 people were released and nearly 700 remained within the walls of the prison. This meant that the prison was running at roughly two-thirds its total capacity, but still the number of confirmed cases has only continued to rise.
On Saturday, May 9th the Lancaster members of the PSL came out in full force and were joined by members of two local organizations, Have a Heart for Persons in the Criminal Justice System and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI). Together, with cars covered in signs prominently displaying our demands and key slogan, “Arrest the Virus, Release the Prisoners!” in English and Spanish, protesters made their way around the city block taken up by the castle-façade prison.
The caravan circled the block numerous times honking horns with shouts of “release the prisoners!” Other cars were honking with the caravan and people who were walking the sidewalks and coming out of their houses were putting up fists and waving in support. From behind the barbed wire walls of the prison we could hear shouts of, “get us the hell out of here!” and other cries of desperation.
Updates from the media and the responses to the action truly show that the inmates at the prison are in the very same situation as hundreds of thousands are across the country. In derelict and confined spaces, it is impossible to properly follow social distancing protocol as recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Growing research is showing that COVID-19 cases are more likely in enclosed areas and that lack proper air circulation. This means that prisons are essentially a “hotspot” for the virus. The situation locally proves this point, when the warden said that 15 of 16 infected inmates were women and they were all in the same block. Family members of inmates in the Lancaster facility have contacted the local newspaper to complain about the concerning conditions that their loved ones are subjected to. The inmates are required to spend even more time in their cells and all meals eaten there as well. This is neither sanitary nor mentally healthy for anyone.
Governor drags his feet while lives hang in the balance
Steps to release prisoners during this crisis in Pennsylvania are slow and minimal. In mid-April, Governor Tom Wolf issued an order to consider the release of up to 1,800 inmates throughout the state. This is a very small percentage of people who are locked up throughout Pennsylvania. At Lancaster County Prison the vast majority of people are incarcerated while waiting for their pretrial date. For many, the only reason is because they cannot afford bail.
The effects of this situation are severe: They cannot work and might lose their jobs, they cannot be with their family to take care of each other, and for some they are missing out on their education. Together this means more financial debt, more relationship issues and potential health burdens. Instead they are stuck inside a facility with a poor heating system, low quality food, and right now only two free phone calls a week and no visitation rights.
Nearly everyone that Party members talked to has stories about the prison that reflect a blatant disregard for human life and unnecessary suffering. Our city is full of people who have either spent time themselves or know a relative or friend who has. Formerly incarcerated people frequently talk to organizers about the inadequate heating and drafty cellblocks that leads to ice in the toilets on especially cold days. In the warm weather months, it’s even worse because there is outrageously no air conditioning system.
There is simply no reason for this, and the solution is clear. The population of the prison needs to be released so that they can be safe with their families for the duration of the pandemic. If they are without a home, the city should direct funds to pay for their stay at a hotel or other vacant accommodations that meet their needs. Proper medical treatment should be available to everyone that needs it and at any time.
The fact that such urgently-needed measures have not already been taken shows how the capitalists and their government only recognize the need to ever increase profits. Any way they can make a dollar at the expense of the people, whether incarcerated in prison or stuck with a low-wage job, they will do whatever they can get away with.
This pandemic has further put on full display the capitalist system’s total disregard for the incarcerated population, which is mainly made up of the poor and working-class. Their freedom from prison is the only way they can properly stay safe and healthy.