‘Prisons Are No Place for a Pandemic:’ Advocates Fight to Free Their Loved Ones
Women of color are fearful about the Covid-19 outbreak within the system
by Victoria Law, ZORA by Medium (zora.medium.com)
Theresa is currently isolating alone in her Harlem apartment. Because Theresa has asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), thus making her more vulnerable to Covid-19, her adult daughters bring her groceries and other necessities from the outside world.
Theresa’s 65-year-old husband Morris is serving his 15th year of a 40-year prison sentence at Green Haven Correctional Facility, one of New York’s 52 state prisons. He too has underlying health issues — asthma, diabetes, and kidney problems. There are 18 people at Green Haven who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Unlike Theresa, Morris cannot self-isolate or practice social distancing. (Theresa asked that the couple only be identified by their first names to protect their privacy and prevent staff retaliation.)
Every day, Morris must leave his cell and walk to the prison’s medical unit where a nurse dispenses his medications. Sometimes medical staff wear masks and gloves; sometimes they do not. For two weeks, Morris chose to forego his medications rather than risk the coronavirus exposure until Theresa convinced him to take that risk.
But that’s not the only possible exposure. Each time he calls, Morris must stand in the unit’s common area to use one of the communal phones. Each phone is used by several dozen other men before and after him. The phones are not disinfected after each use.
Some days Theresa worries that her husband won’t make it home alive. But she’s refusing to give up — and she’s fighting to change the laws so that he, and many others, have the chance to come home.
As Covid-19 spreads throughout prisons nationwide, those like Theresa have been advocating for their loved ones’ releases. Some are working to pass laws to allow their loved ones the opportunity to be released early. Others are demanding that governors exercise their powers of clemency, or a lessening of a prison sentence, and let their loved ones go. The rest are fighting in courts.
As of April 20, 211 people incarcerated in New York’s state prisons have tested positive for Covid-19. Five have died. There are 794 staff members who have also tested positive; one has died. Governor Andrew Cuomo will not use his clemency pen to decrease prison populations and, with it, possible exposure. Instead, he has directed the prison to identify and release older people with less than three months on their sentence, a plan which advocates with the Release Aging People in Prison campaign charge will “have no impact on reducing density and stopping the spread of the virus in a state prison system that currently holds 43,000.”
Theresa’s not waiting on Cuomo. Instead, she’s working with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) to push two laws to help her husband — and thousands of others — return home sooner. The first is the Elder Parole Act, which requires the parole board to schedule an immediate interview for people ages 55 and older who have served at least 15 years of their sentence. The act does not require the parole board to approve that person’s release.) If the act passes, Morris, who just passed his 15th year in prison, could appear before parole commissioners and demonstrate that he’s no longer the same man who, 15 years earlier, participated in a group robbery ending in an assault. The second bill, the Fair and Timely Parole Act, requires that commissioners evaluate an applicant based on their rehabilitative efforts rather than their crime.
Theresa has traveled to Albany to rally on the capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase and to lobby legislators, including her own assembly member Inez Dickens. Dickens signed onto both bills after speaking with Theresa.
In Boston, Tomasina Baker had been fighting for her daughter’s freedom for over 10 years. In 2008, Baker’s daughter Kimya Foust was sentenced to 20 years in prison after fatally stabbing a man who tried to rape her. She’s in her 13th year at Framingham, Massachusetts’ only women’s prison, which has 37 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
Stacey Borden was Foust’s cellmate and became her best friend. Both entered Framingham in 2008; Foust was so highly medicated that she was drooling. Borden helped advocate for Foust to be taken off these medications. Once her head cleared, Foust began advocating for Borden, fighting for her cellmate to be able to enroll in the college prison program despite the relative brevity of her sentence.
When Borden left prison in 2010, she promised to fight for Foust — and the other women who had helped her through her incarceration. It was a promise that changed her life. “I could never let it go,” she said. She connected with Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH), a Boston-based organization fighting to end female incarceration, and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a nationwide network. Through FJAH, Borden helped those facing charges and their family members to come together to strategize legal defenses. She connected with a constellation of women, many of whom had been incarcerated and/or had loved ones who were incarcerated. These women knew how to fight the system and they welcomed her.
That was how Borden met her best friend’s mother. In 2019, Foust told Baker about an organization that wanted to help her get out of prison. That organization was Families for Justice as Healing.
Covid-19 makes Foust’s release all the more urgent. As of March 1, Framingham held 288 women. Built in 1877, the prison has deteriorated beyond repair. In 2016, Framingham closed some of its housing units after high levels of PCBs (carcinogenic chemicals that have been banned in the U.S. since 1979) were found, shuffling women into the remaining housing units. Even before Covid-19, lawmakers were planning to shutter Framingham and were seeking bids to build a new women’s prison.
Women incarcerated at Framingham have no masks, are ordered to stay three instead of six feet apart, and are told to sleep head to foot. The only way to keep abreast of the pandemic is to apply for a pass to the prison law library, where newspapers are kept. But the women are currently locked into their cells for more than 23 hours each day. During their 30 minutes out, women can shower, make phone calls, or check their prison “email” on a communal kiosk. This leaves no time for perusing the paper.
Covid-19 has also changed advocates’ ability to come together and protest. Before the pandemic, Theresa took the hour-long subway ride from her Harlem home to Chinatown for monthly RAPP meetings. Now, she does everything online — the meetings, the press conferences, and even the rallies.
Other advocates are taking to their cars to protest. In Massachusetts, advocates are organizing weekly #FreeHerFriday caravans. Every Friday afternoon, 60 to 80 cars, many covered in signs proclaiming “Prisons Are No Place for Pandemic” and “Free Her,” drive to Framingham. At the prison, they pause, honk their horns and chant, loudly enough that women inside can hear them, “Free her! Free her!” They then return to Boston, repeating their honks and chants outside the South Bay House of Correction, the local jail which holds 165 women awaiting trial or serving short sentences.
On April 21, nearly 50 advocates drove to Cuomo’s gubernatorial mansion while another 10 to 20 people drove to two prisons. There, they rallied to demand that Cuomo grant clemencies to aging and otherwise vulnerable people in prisons. Theresa followed the rallies online. “It feels good to know that there are people out there advocating for and with us,” she said. “It feels good to know that it’s not just us.”
About the author: Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance and the author of Resistance Behind Bars.
This story first appeared in ZORA by Medium on April 29, 2020; reprinted with permission. Copyright, Medium