Free Prisoners

​​​​​​​Release high-risk inmates and those held on bail from jails and prisons immediately. Release all immigrants and asylum seekers held in detention centers. Provide care for those infected and adequate minimum distance requirements for remaining inmates. Prison cannot mean a guaranteed death sentence.

“Our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring
new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”

Angela Davis, former political prisoner, prison abolitionist, scholar and activist

Jails, prisons, and detention centers are major vectors for spreading disease. With densely packed populations and unsanitary conditions, prisons and detention centers will become death camps for the people held inside. Continuing to detain large numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants in close quarters is likewise unforgivable, many of these detainees are children.

Whatever your stance on prisons and detentions, prisoners are not separate from the world outside, they have families and children and communities that are already impacted by their incarceration. Losing their loved one to COVID-19 is preventable. No one deserves to die of Covid-19 in prison or jail, but more than 100 inmates already have, and thousands more could if steps are not taken to protect the incarcerated now.

31-year-old Aaron DeShawn Campbell, an inmate at an Ohio Federal Prison

Social distancing in prisons is nearly impossible. The size of the inmate population in federal prisons exceeds their rated capacity by 12 to 19 percent, according to a report this year from the Justice Department. Unmitigated spread inside could mean a guaranteed death sentence for the infected, as prisons and detention centers do not have the medical capacity to service prisoners that require intensive care.

Iran, Germany, Canada and many states in the US have already released prisoners to slow the spread of COVID-19. Yet the response is not widespread, nor rapid enough. We need to immediately release high-risk (elderly, immunocompromised, chronically ill) inmates, those nearing the end of their sentences and all people held on bail, pending trial. Detention centers and prisons must establish adequate quarantine conditions for the remaining inmates, and provide care for those infected and ensure minimum distance requirements for remaining inmates. Compassionate release now. Clemency now.

FAQ

Why free prisoners?

No one should have forced exposure to a potentially deadly virus. Trapping prisoners and detainees in in densely packed prisons without adequate hygiene and minimal health care is a recipe for explosive growth in a virus that thrives in crowds. How can prisoners possibly social distance adequately when they have no room to spread out? No one should be subjected to increased risk of death and suffering beyond their sentence. Think of all the people who are due to be released in a year, two years, even five, and imagine that instead of returning to their families they die in prison from COVID-19. This is a fate we must stand against together. No life is expendable.

The role of prisons in rapidly incubating COVID-19 cases is a public health risk for everyone; prisons are often major employers in rural areas and they will continue to spread the pandemic through guards and others servicing workers into the surrounding populations. We know the virus cannot be contained, but can be slowed by adequate social distancing. Concentrating people without hygiene, sanitation, and healthcare will accelerate the pandemic behind bars and on the outside. The clear and obvious solution is to de-populate the prisons and allow people to return to their homes and families where they can social distance safely with the communities that support them.

Some counties and states have taken small steps towards this goal but none are moving fast enough, and as a result we are seeing massive spikes in COVID-19 cases in prisons all over the country. In one Indiana prison, 92% of inmates tested positive for COVID-19, while in Rikers Island, 10% of the total inmate population has COVID-19, over 5 times the infection rate of NYC. We need urgent action now.

How will we free them?

Attorney General William Barr has the authority under the CARES Act to expand the authority of the Bureau of Prisons to send people into home confinement. He has ordered the Bureau of Prisons to make more inmates at federal facilities eligible for home confinement, prioritizing those at federal facilities with outbreaks in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio, but state and local prisons must follow suit. Justice groups have maintained pressure through letter writing campaigns, citing that bureaucratic bottlenecks continue to slow the process.

The simplest way to free prisoners would be for the politicians, officials, and bureaucrats in charge of of policy to release low level and non-violent offenders immediately. However the police must stop arresting and admitting new prisoners for these same crimes, thereby slowing the circulation of people through detained populations.

Unfortunately, it is clear that our leaders will never take a responsible and measured approach to this crisis, so it is up to us to create pressure any way we can. Check out the toolkit below for useful tactics and growing solidarity networks focused on immediate release, prisoner support, and the continued struggle for prison abolition.

What is prison abolition?

The prison-abolition movement is a loose collection of people and groups who, in many different ways, are calling for deep, structural reforms to how we handle and even think about crime.

The movement operates through affinity groups in various organizations working in prisoner support, prisoner advocacy, political advocacy, or community education who support the cause of abolition in coalition with each other.

Abolitionists believe that incarceration, in any form, harms society more than it helps. Even if the current prison population were cut in half, but the prison complex remained intact, millions of incarcerated people would still face inhumane isolation and violence.

Abolitionists aim to reshape society as a whole, addressing the root causes of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental-health crises, instead of criminalizing the lived experience of these conditions.

Abolitionists envision a future in which vital needs like housing, education, and health care, are met, allowing people to live safe and fulfilled lives—without the need for prisons.

The formula is simple: a moratorium on new prisons, decarceration of existing inmates, and excarceration; which aims to establish accessible support systems for housing, mental health services, addiction treatment and drug decriminalization efforts thus diverting people from being incarcerated to begin with.

5 Demands recognizes abolition as vital to our shared and continued immunity.

Who is already doing this work?

There are many large abolitionist and prison solidarity initiatives across the country, as well as small informal efforts anywhere someone has a loved one in prison. The following is a short and incomplete list of organizations who are currently focused on COVID-19 related release:
Humanity Not Cages is a coalition-backed platform demanding a just and humane response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) is a union for the incarcerated fighting for prison abolition.
Beyond Prisons is working with people around the United States to build resources for supporting incarcerated people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is encouraging all people in federal prison who are most vulnerable to immediately apply for early release. FAMM is also encouraging state and local governments to use their authority to release sick and elderly people as quickly as possible.
Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.
Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) is inspired by the abolitionist movement against mass incarceration and the environmental justice movement, which have both been led by the communities who are hardest hit by prisons and pollution.

Working toward prison abolition is not a novel initiative, however there are some immediate responses that need direct support during COVID-19. Phone zaps, bail and commissary funding, car and noise demonstrations and letter writing campaigns to both prisoners and the people keeping them locked up are critical and this work can continue after the pandemic has subsided.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, co-founder of California Prison Moratorium Project and Critical Resistance, on COVID-19 decarceration. Watch part 2 & 3

TOOLKIT

  1. Find other people and organizations who are working toward prison abolition and doing prisoner support.
  2. Build connections with inmates and their families: look on social media, write letters to inmates to build relationships, consider tabling or flyering outside of courts and jails. People with loved ones on the inside are probably already working tirelessly to free them. Offer your own skills, time, and energy, learn from their process.
  3. Contribute to community bail funds, or create one, so that those awaiting trial can remain safely at home. Support those on the inside by adding money to their commissary.
  4. Learn your local terrain: which jails, prisons, and detention centers are close to you? Who is in charge of them? Where do the wardens and guards live? Which sites are conducive to noise demonstrations or car demonstrations? What points on the landscape are visible to people on the inside? Even simply holding banners letting people know they’re not alone can have a huge impact.
  5. Start making noise. Put up posters and flyers near essential businesses–grocery stores, pharmacies, other places that people still visit regularly. Make sure that no one can leave their house without being reminded of the deadly situation within jails and prisons.
  6. Join call-in campaigns, or phone zaps, to raise awareness about the conditions on the inside and put external pressure on prison wardens, county sheriffs, state and federal officials, mayors and governors who decide who is released and when.
  7. Organize noise demonstrations, banner drops, and car protests let people on the inside know that we are paying attention and care about them, while also creating potential media coverage.
  8. Maintain contact with people inside and find out what happens on the inside when there are demonstrations on the outside. Be prepared to hear professional organizers tell you that making a disturbance outside jail will only make it worse for people inside–sometimes this is true, but often the balm of solidarity more than compensates for any temporary lockdown, so make sure you’re judging the effects of your actions based on the feelings of prisoners, not of self-appointed spokespeople.
  9. Check in with yourself and other people involved after each event. How did it feel? What were successes and challenges? How did your actions change the situation, and what might some next steps be?
  10. Be prepared for a marathon. One successful demonstration or phone zap won’t free all the prisoners, but it will help you to meet other people, to build more relationships, and to continue strategizing and building power together.

TACTICS:

Phone zaps:

COVID-19 Phone Zap
On-going Phone Zaps
How to Organize a Phone Zap

Car protests:

Bail Funds:

The National Bail Fund Network: is made up of over sixty community bail and bond funds across the country.
The Freedom Fund: against the mass detention of LGBTQ individuals
NYC Bail Fund: emergency grassroots initiative to get people safe and free.
Brooklyn Community Bail Fund: to get people free from immigration detention during the COVID-19 crisis.
Emergency Release Fund: Keeping Trans People Safe And Out Of Jail. Now.
Chicago Community Bond Fund: Working to end money bail and pretrial incarceration in Cook County.
Philadelphia Community Bail Fund: to end cash bail in the city of Philadelphia.
Montgomery Bail Out Fund: provide support and post bail for people in the Montgomery County Jail during COVID-19.
Nashville Community Bail Fund: frees low-income persons from jail, connects with their loved ones, and works to end wealth-based detention through community partnerships.
National Bail Out (Mama’s Day Bail Out): bailing out Black people across the country for Father’s Day, Juneteenth, and Pride.

Detention Funds:

Directory of Immigration System Bail Funds
Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement
Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project
Haitian Bridge Alliance
Organization Latina Trans in Texas
Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network
Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee
Pangea Legal Services
Queer Detainee Empowerment Project
Survived and Punished
Freedom for Immigrants
Santa Fe Dreamers Project
Trans Queer Pueblo

Start your own Bail Fund:

Community Justice Exchange: National Bail Fund Network – Community Bail Funds as an Organizing Tool

External Resources and Links:

Prisoner Support Guide For The Coronavirus Crisis from Beyond Prisons

PRISON ABOLITION & SUPPORT GROUPS:

Beyond Prisons is an educational and political resource for those new to abolition and those long engaged in movement work.
Certain Days is a yearly calendar featuring writing and artwork of political prisoners. Sales of the calendar go to benefit various radical and political prisoner projects.
Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is encouraging all people in federal prison who are most vulnerable to immediately apply for early release. FAMM is also encouraging state and local governments to use their authority to release sick and elderly people as quickly as possible.
Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) is inspired by the abolitionist movement against mass incarceration and the environmental justice movement, which have both been led by the communities who are hardest hit by prisons and pollution.
Free Alabama Movement is a national movement against mass incarceration and prison slavery.
Humanity Not Cages is a coalition-backed platform demanding a just and humane response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) is a union for the incarcerated fighting for prison abolition.
INCITE! is a network of radical feminists of color organizing to end state violence and violence in our homes and communities.
It’s Going Down is a digital community center and platform to publicize and promote revolutionary theory and action.
Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project is an all-volunteer effort that strives to encourage self-education among prisoners in the United States.
Perilous: A Chronicle of Prisoner Unrest Across the US and Canada, 2010-Present