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#LetThemGo: Prison release advocates shift online amid pandemic

'Prisons are just not prepared to address this type of crisis.'

Apr 17, 2020, 11:40 am*

IRL

Samira Sadeque 

Samira Sadeque

It’s her 20th day in quarantine. Michelle Lind just got off an online video conference for her husband’s release, and she’s frustrated. 

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Lind worries that amid the concern of the coronavirus pandemic, her husband is especially vulnerable. Lind says the only safe place for him is at home with her.

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“It’s only a matter of time,” she told the Daily Dot. “We’re running out of time up-state; it’s finally coming up here.”

Her husband, 73-year-old Robert Lind, is a cancer patient and incarcerated at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York. Michelle Lind said he faced a “drug charge” during a period of heightened punishment for drug crimes in the 1970s. According to public records, Robert Lind was imprisoned for attempted murder and criminal use of firearms in 1984. 

Since America realized the extent of global coronavirus pandemic last month, a movement has been brewing online to demand the release of prisoners across the country, especially prisoners who are older or immunocompromised.

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Prisons can be especially susceptible to coronavirus, which may be contained through measures like hand-washing and maintaining a distancing of 6 feet between each person, according to recommendations by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

“Governors need to understand this is a public health issue, and people who are convicted of violent offense are also people,” Amber-Rose Howard, the executive director at Californians United for a Responsible Budget, told the Daily Dot. 

Lind says a female correctional officer who worked her husband’s block at the Fallsburg facility was diagnosed with coronavirus. Lind knows exposure to someone with the disease can increase one’s risk of contracting it—and she’s especially worried about her husband.

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“They’re doing absolutely nothing,” Lind said of the facility’s response to the crisis. She said prison staff aren’t wearing masks. 

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which operates the Sullivan Correctional Facility, has so far reported 424 positive cases among staff members and 81 cases among the incarcerated population. According to the organization, both inmates and staff are being repeatedly briefed on safety measures and have access to hand sanitizers. 

In the past, Lind has attended physical rallies for her husband’s release in Albany alongside hundreds of others demanding release of family members. Lind worries that the momentum will not be the same now that they can’t be out on the streets. 

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“We can’t stand at the capital anymore and yell and scream,” she said. “All we can do is make phone calls, and they’re not being returned.” 

Her fears aren’t unfounded. Online activism, compared to in-person demonstrations, have in some cases been deemed less efficient. As writer Antonia Malchik points out, fast-rising movements like Occupy Wall Street and online petitions have fizzled out before making significant change.  

Malchik writes that the physical act of taking up space designed for the public is inherent in the spirit of resistance.

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Lind is concerned that prison release advocates are now forced to organize around crucial issues online when such protests are crucial and could be less efficient without the power of mobilizing in a physical space.

“Several legislators joined us on these online calls but now: they can’t see us, they can only hear us,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic communities find online platforms and online activism to be an important tool for civic engagement, according to a 2018 Pew assessment, and there’s historic reason for that. As Wired explains, Black Civil Rights activists in the ‘60s went through long, meandering paths to get a simple message out—while risking roadblocks from operators or middlemen who were white and might have had the power to block the message.

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Now, thanks to technology, a message—whether it’s police brutality video or call for a rally—is much more accessible. Online organizing is popular and even more preferable among youth of color and people socially disadvantaged in other ways. 

This spirit is evident among organizers and advocates of the prison release movement. Those involved with online prison release movements—including #ClemencyCoast2Coast and #LetThemGo, which gained momentum on social media in recent weeks—say they’re starting to see the ripples of their movements amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 27, advocacy groups—including the Release Aging People in Prison, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, and the Parole Preparation Project—organized a call on social media for California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release prisoners.

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Jose Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison, told the Daily Dot that tens of thousands of people participated across the country in the online movement on March 27.Throughout the week, many tweeted at the California and New York governors to demand the release of prisoners who are elderly or especially vulnerable to coronavirus. 

Howard said moving Californians United for a Responsible Budget’s work online had some impact on how to move forward. But the organization is providing participants with trainings, group discussions, virtual press conferences—and trying to ensure that they feel as close to physical meetings as possible. 

Some are also seeing the value in people’s increased screen time as a result of social isolation. Kate Chatfield, senior advisor for legislation and policy at Justice Collaborative, focused on the positives of the situation.

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“Now, more people are taking note, more people are at home, more people are sitting in front of their computers, so we’re able to utilize what we already have to get the word out to people,” Chatfield told the Daily Dot. 

A poll conducted by the Justice Collaborative in March found the majority of respondents supported the release of prisoners and/or provisions for prisoners to ensure there isn’t overcrowding that would increase risk of coronavirus for prisoners or people going in and out of prisons. 

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Saldana, who himself was incarcerated for nearly 40 years, knows from experience why it’s crucial for incarcerated people—especially senior citizens—to be released amid an outbreak.

“I lived through the HIV crisis, the outbreaks of hepatitis C—a serious problem in the state prisons and I’ve seen the unpreparedness,” he told the Daily Dot. “Prisons are just not prepared to address this type of crisis on the mass level that has occurred.” 

Failure to address health issues—or release prisoners—predominantly affects Black and Latino communities, who make up more than 50% of the prison population in the country. 

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“Everybody agrees now that mass incarceration was a reality for the Black and Latino communities of this country,” Saldana said. “The question is: If you accept that that’s a reality, then what are you going to do to correct it?” 

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While Saldana is positive about the responses on March 27, advocates say it’s crucial for the movement to stay afloat and the momentum to keep building. On April 3, Release Aging People in Prison co-organized a vigil outside the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, after an inmate with coronavirus reportedly died from “flu-like symptoms.” 

Participants maintained social distancing and many wore masks, Saldana said. Shortly after the online campaign, Newsom commuted 21 clemencies. Cuomo ordered the release of 1,100 prisoners but has reportedly said he is not considering any further releases.

“I would hope this would push Gov. Cuomo to take this seriously. This is shocking that they’re going to stand and count the bodies,” Chatfield of the Justice Collaborative told the Daily Dot. 

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Lind last saw her husband in November. She had plans to go in February, the month when he underwent chemotherapy, but the plan didn’t work out amid rising concerns over the coronavirus concerns.  

In her home where she’s all alone, the agony only grows.

“These human beings deserve an opportunity,” Saldana said. “Don’t let them die needlessly in prison when they could be a service to our communities that no one else could provide.” 

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*First Published: Apr 10, 2020, 6:00 am