FREE THEM ALL; RELEASE THEM NOW
Incarceration has always been a public health emergency that the deadly threat of COVID-19 only makes more depraved. These demands, developed by a coalition of organizers across New York, provide a clear and urgent path to free them all and bring our loved ones home from jail, prison, and immigration detention.
The global spread of COVID-19 has highlighted a longstanding public health emergency. Due to the lack of a public health infrastructure or social safety net in the United States, vulnerable, structurally marginalized, and oppressed people are (and will continue to be) disproportionately harmed during this crisis. This is nowhere more evident than the country’s treatment of criminalized and imprisoned people, who come from communities already subjected to state disinvestment and poor health conditions, and who are put in further danger through their contact with the criminal legal system.
Criminalized and incarcerated people are our loved ones and community members. Their health and wellbeing impacts our collective health. We are profoundly concerned for them and outraged that jurisdictions across New York State have not taken action to protect their health and safety. People in jails, prisons, immigration detention, and on parole, work release, and electronic monitoring, along with their families, deserve health and dignity and must be a central part of New York State’s pandemic response.
The evidence is clear. Policing, jails, prisons, and immigration detention have always been disastrous for public health and have always rendered oppressed people—Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, immigrants, trans and gender nonconforming people, people who use drugs (especially those with issues of dependency), homeless people, people with mental illness, disabled people, survivors of intimate partner violence, working class people (including sex workers), and the impoverished—vulnerable to injury, illness, and death.
No analysis of the contemporary prison-industrial complex is complete without acknowledging the evolution of policing, incarceration, and penal labor directly out of chattel slavery, a continuity that prevails today in New York’s jails and prisons. Within this lineage, the right to life has always been disregarded—historians have further unearthed exorbitant mortality rates of people incarcerated within the violent convict leasing system active from the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. As the carceral state has mutated and expanded, the names of institutions and practices have changed, but the life-threatening health implications of incarceration remain deeply embedded in the system’s design.
Public health research has shown that each increased year incarcerated leads to a two-year decrease in life expectancy, with individuals leaving incarceration having mortality rates thirteen times higher than that of the average person. The federal government’s own data—undoubtedly underestimating the real deleterious impacts of caging human beings—admitted that one-third of illness-related deaths were the result of conditions developed after being incarcerated. Public health studies have shown that these deadly impacts not only hurt those incarcerated, but often result in increased cardiovascular problems for their families—including for women who may disproportionately serve as caregivers for their networks—as well as increased mortality rates in counties with higher incarceration rates. The COVID-19 pandemic has only illuminated what has been true all along: policing and incarceration kill.
The only acceptable response to COVID-19 is decarceration. A plan to immediately release people from jail, prison, and immigration detention to their chosen homes and communities and prevent more people from being incarcerated is the best possible protection against the deadly spread of COVID-19, not only among incarcerated people, but their communities and families, as well. The state’s broad powers to reduce arrests, prosecutions, and jail admissions; and to use mass pardons, clemencies, and commutations to free people from jail, prison, and immigration detention have always existed. What has been lacking has been the political will to end mass criminalization and free people from incarceration. Yet, this moment demands nothing less than the courage to end policies that have been brutalizing our communities for centuries.
Our imperative will always and forever be to liberate all incarcerated people, prevent future incarceration, and obstruct our existing power structures from enacting reforms that tacitly replicate the injustices of today’s prison-industrial complex. We refuse distinctions of “violent”/“nonviolent,” “guilty”/“innocent,” and other punitive logic through which the state attempts to divide us and leave incarcerated people behind. The vast majority of incarcerated people have experienced at least one form of trauma prior to incarceration, and all incarcerated individuals experience the trauma of confinement. During sentences, corrections officers and other officials perpetuate physical, sexual, and psychological abuses against their captives in untold numbers. Medical research has shown that exposure to trauma suppresses the immune system and puts people at much higher risk of disease and, potentially, death. For these reasons and more, we understand that neither the harms that our incarcerated loved ones may or may not have enacted nor their root causes are effectively or compassionately resolved through the system of disposal and retraumatization represented by incarceration.
We also recognize that certain populations within jails and prisons—people age 50 and older, pregnant people, people with chronic lung conditions such as COPD or asthma, hepatitis C, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiac disease, people with HIV, immunocompromised people, and trans people—cannot wait weeks or months to be released. They are vulnerable to serious illness and death more so now than ever before.
The WHO has made clear recommendations around social distancing and hygiene precautions that must be practiced to keep COVID-19 from spreading. Carceral environments patently fail to meet the criteria demanded to stop COVID-19 transmissions and will further contribute to the acceleration of transmission rates outside the walls. The conditions of confinement, the lack of access to medical care inside facilities, and the structural violence and vulnerability produced by policing and incarceration make healthy people sick, and, as of the COVID-19 outbreak, put all people subjected to them at risk of serious illness or death due to transmission.
Regardless of charge or sentence served, we are calling on Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and jurisdictions across New York State to immediately release those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19; fulfill the harm-reducing demands raised by people caged on Rikers Island and in the Manhattan Detention Complex; provide those coming home with access to humane and dignified healthcare and housing during this public health emergency and beyond; and work with incarcerated people and their impacted communities to develop comprehensive plans for expanding these liberatory care initiatives to New York’s entire incarcerated population
In these demands, we join other coalitions, advocates, and incarcerated people and their loved ones across the United States. They have clearly and forcefully called for: reducing policing, dismissing prosecutions; closing courts and suspending court appointments, suspending probation and parole check-ins, reducing jail admissions; releasing people detained pretrial and serving short sentences in jail; releasing people from immigration detention, stopping all ICE enforcement, and suspending ICE check-ins; and releasing people from prison. These groups include: The Abolitionist Law Center, African Services Committee, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Chicago Community Bail Fund, Critical Resistance, Communities United for Police Reform, CURB Prisons, Detention Watch, Families for Freedom, Families for Justice as Healing, Humane Outbreak Response, Immigrant Defense Project, LatinoJusticePRLDEF, The Legal Aid Society, Make the Road New York, Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, New Sanctuary Coalition, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York County Defender Services, New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, New York Immigration Coalition, Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Office of the Appellate Defender, Moms United Against Violence & Incarceration, National Bail Fund Network, the National Association of Immigration Judges, Queens Defenders, Sunset Park ICE Watch, and even a coalition of prosecutors.
We urge New York state to join other jurisdictions that have already suspended or reduced arrests, (temporarily) decriminalized conduct, and suspended police response to non-emergency calls, reduced custodial arrests, suspended non-essential trials, released people from jail, and released people from prison in order to protect the health and safety of criminalized and incarcerated people. The immediate necessity of these basic harm reduction measures should be apparent to anyone who values human life.
We want to be clear that a state-level implementation of these most urgent initial demands does not absolve New York’s elected and appointed officials from further dismantling the city’s reliance on jails, prisons, and immigrant detention. As long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, any incarcerated person, regardless of health status, could enter into one or more of the at-risk categories described above. Moreover, we cannot expect this year’s outbreak to be the only imminent, large-scale crisis liable to endanger incarcerated people. Whatever the hypothetical emergency, the city must now recognize that the very shape of carceral confinement—the non-mobility and deprivation of individuals who are separated from their support systems by cages and dominated by corrections staff—intrinsically subjects human beings to drastic, unmanageable escalations in vulnerability.
Finally, as New York City takes steps to radically decarcerate and city jails are emptied, the city must take steps to close Rikers Island immediately, not in 2026 per City Council’s potentially unenforceable “Land Use” Amendment vote. Rikers has always posed a deadly risk for those incarcerated there, and the worsening COVID-19 outbreak will only exacerbate this risk. The city must cease its plan to use $11 billion to build four new jails, and instead invest that money in the healthcare, housing, education, and transformative justice programs that will actually keep New Yorkers safe, healthy, and in their communities.
These are our demands.
Reduce Policing. Policing never makes us safe; often hurts us, sometimes kills us, and right now spreads COVID-19. In addition to freeing all people currently held in jail, prison, and immigration detention, reducing contact with the criminal legal system and reducing the flow of people into jail are necessary for stopping the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable and marginalized people.
Release People from Jail
Release all people from jail. Public health officials have stated that there should be no gatherings larger than 50 people and that people should maintain at least 6 feet of distance between each other, safety precautions which are impossible to follow in jail. Every single person released from confinement and safely housed helps to slow the spread of COVID-19 and “flatten the curve” in jails and prisons and outside.
We uplift the demands of people currently on work and hunger strike in Rikers and people detained in the Manhattan Detention Complex (known as The Tombs). We believe that people currently surviving the most extreme state violence and repression in our jails and prisons must lead our abolitionist fight, and know best the strategies and tactics to get everyone free. These demands are updated as our comrades inside continue to organize.
Release People from Prison and Ensure Safer and Less Abusive Conditions for Incarcerated People
Release all people from prison with no distinctions based on conviction. Everyone incarcerated is at risk of contracting COVID-19. As prisons develop plans and protocols to release everyone, medical personnel must begin immediately to identify people at greatest risk of serious illness and/or death from COVID-19, and provide them with adequate care and accelerated release. As we work to free them all, we also uplift demands to ensure the safety and health of people incarcerated in jails, prison, and immigration detention. We are joining the demands of Release Aging People from Prison Campaign and the Parole Preparation Project.
Release People from ICE Detention, Stop All Enforcement, Halt the Deportation Machine Entirely
The deportation machine must be fully halted. ICE must release all people from immigration detention centers, jails, and camps on the border with no distinctions based on conviction or arrest history. As ICE develops plans and protocols to release everyone, medical personnel must begin immediately to identify people at greatest risk of serious illness and/or death from COVID-19, and provide them with adequate care and accelerated release. ICE must stop all enforcement in the interior United States and at the border as such enforcement is inhumane and only exacerbates the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice – Executive Office of Immigration Review must halt both the detained and non-detained court dockets nationwide. Ongoing incarceration should not justify continuing detained dockets; ICE must instead immediately release all people from their custody as delineated above. ICE must stop deportations nationwide as deportations in the midst of this global pandemic replicates U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism, including the devastation of Indigenous communities worldwide. ICE must release individuals who are currently incarcerated demanding immediate deportation to their communities so they may exercise self-autonomy and their human right to migrate without State coercion and duress. ICE must halt any and all supervised-release check-ins (“OSUP check-ins”).