Release Them Now… Or Expect a Massive COVID-19 Outbreak on Rikers Island

Drastic action is needed, writes the Central Brooklyn state Senate candidate Jabari Brisport.

Jabari Brisport Apr 3, 2020

As of Monday, 167 incarcerated people in New York City have contracted coronavirus, along with nearly as many correctional facility employees. These numbers are going to rise. 

We must dramatically decarcerate and we must do it now.

The deadly pandemic will spread unchecked among incarcerated people and correctional facility employees as long as we keep people in an environment that, by its very nature, prohibits anything resembling safety or social distancing. As the Chief Medical Officer of the city’s Correctional Health Services has said, “We cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom.” 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio owe it to the public to take action before New York’s jails and prisons become the epicenter of a second wave of outbreak.

So far, the Department of Corrections’ response has been entirely inadequate. Inmates are instructed to sleep a mere 3 feet apart. The DOC’s plan for sanitation? Paying incarcerated people an abysmal “wage” of $1-2 an hour for the high-risk work of disinfecting facilities during the outbreak. Meanwhile, the state will continue to ask prisoners to work for even more abominable “wages” — reportedly, as low as 16 cents an hour — as they bottle desperately-needed hand sanitizer. 

While their labor helps us stay safe, they are trapped, waiting for the onslaught of a virus that many will not survive. 

To make matters worse, if the prisons become epicenters of the pandemic, everyone who works there will be exposed to coronavirus and will risk exposing their families, neighbors, fellow commuters, and local grocery store & pharmacy employees — worsening the dire situation in our city. 

Long before COVID-19 was discovered, I released a decarceration platform with a slate of DSA-endorsed candidates running for state legislature. Together, we called for reforms that would reduce the state’s prison population, which has ballooned in the last forty years. 

In many ways, current policies allow the imprisonment of people without a thought for the effect it will have on their lives and on our communities. That is why we pledged to support fully ending cash bail, decriminalizing sex work and simple drug possession, repealing mandatory sentencing, reducing maximum sentences, enacting elder parole, and legalizing marijuana, along with other policies to reduce New York’s incarcerated population. 

These measures were necessary then. They are urgent now. 

Though we applaud the mayor’s recent release of several hundred of our imprisoned brothers and sisters, democratic socialists like myself understand that far more drastic action is needed. 

Our demands are simple: 

  • We must dramatically decarcerate and we must do it now. 
  • We must guarantee imprisoned people their human right to healthcare. 
  • We must refuse to allow our government to engage in the use of slave labor. 
  • We must ensure a fair wage — at least $15 an hour — for all the work that incarcerated people perform. 

It should not take a pandemic for our, governments to treat incarcerated people like human beings. Our mayor and our governor must put the full weight of their authority behind these measures. 

As COVID-19 exposes the inherent injustice and inhumanity of our prison system, it also offers us the chance to improve that system, not just to address the crisis but to begin to undo our barbarous carceral state. In addressing this burgeoning, immediate crisis in our prisons and jails, we can not only save lives in the short term but also put an end to a system that is putting us all at risk and corroding our communities. 

As we release people from unsanitary, overcrowded, inhumane prisons and jails, we must ask ourselves why we allowed anyone to be imprisoned in these conditions in the first place. The current crisis is a product of cruel, morally bankrupt policies, and our only hope for the future is to permanently right the wrongs of the carceral state. 

Jabari Brisport is a public school teacher from Prospect Heights, a  racial justice organizer and democratic socialist. He is running as a Democrat for State Senate in District 25, currently represented by Velmanette Montgomery. Montgomery will vacate the seat at the end of her term. 

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