Since 2010, the U.S. has executed 321 prisoners sentenced to death. This year, 540 people in the criminal justice system have died due to COVID-19. None were sentenced to death.
The #JustUs campaign calls on legislators to create national and state-based legislation to protect incarcerated people during major crises, emergencies or natural disasters—such as COVID-19.
The #JustUs campaign is an initiative of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a national criminal justice reform non-profit dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half. JLUSA’s goal is driving sustainable, real policy changes in the prison system.
“We’re calling on legislators to enact proactive solutions that protect the human beings behind bars during COVID-19, a second wave and any upcoming disasters,” DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JLUSA, told Ms. “COVID has exposed this issue to the country, being a national pandemic, but we’ve always had emergencies and disasters.”
Other settings that house human beings—like hospitals, daycares and universities—have thorough planning for when disaster may strike. Yet, prison systems distinctly lack this crucial planning.
The #JustUs campaign argues that the best way to make change is to flood the inboxes of legislators and pressure them to call attention to this issue.
“Somebody needs to have the courage to introduce the legislation,” Hoskins said.
Impact of Coronavirus in Prisons
The lack of response nationally and the absence of reform in correctional facilities has turned prisons into pandemic petri dishes—recently discussed on the June 21 episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
In prisons and jails, there’s no ability to stay socially distant, and basic disease prevention tools—such as hand sanitizer—are against the rules. As a result, as of June 16, over 46,000 people in prison had tested positive for the virus.
“Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control,” said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex. “There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap.”
Ironically, to combat coronavirus-related shortages and price gouging, some people in the criminal justice system have been forced to make hand sanitizer as prison labor—a product they themselves cannot even use, since it is deemed contraband. And they’re usually paid less than $1 per hour to do so.
The lack of legislation protecting prisoners has been acting as the judge, jury and executioner. Creating a proper and humane plan means the difference between life and death—as prisoners continue to get infected or die.
An Ohio prisoner’s wife told JLUSA her husband passed on May 2 from COVID-19. He was not provided proper medical care initially. When finally moved to a hospital, it was too late to intervene, and he died in under a week. The prison facility did not even have a plan in place to notify his family—his wife learned of his death from others within the prison.
“He was not sentenced to death by the judge,” she said, “but by the governor and elected officials’ inability and unwillingness to act.”
Existing Horrors of Prison Conditions
Inhumane conditions for prisoners aren’t a new addition to life behind bars—they’ve just been exemplified by the pandemic.
“History, time and time again, has shown us that the lives inside of those facilities were not considered,” Hoskins said.
When New York deaths were at a height, prisoners from the state dug the graves. Those in the California criminal justice system fought the wildfires—but couldn’t get a job with the fire departments once they were released, due to their felony records. We’ve seen the same lack of humanity through the lens of other disasters: Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Irene (2011), California wildfires, tornadoes and earthquakes have all shaken prison facilities.
Hoskins told of the nightmare inside of the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in Louisiana during Katrina in 2005—as guards left prisoners on elevated surfaces, hoping the water didn’t rise to drown them.
The ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP) report, “Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” released on the one-year anniversary of Katrina, outlines the horrific emergency conditions within the jail and emphasizes the need for disaster planning:
This culture of neglect was evident in the days before Katrina, when the sheriff declared that the prisoners would remain “where they belong,” despite the mayor’s decision to declare the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation.
As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests.
“The sheriff’s office was completely unprepared for the storm,” said Tom Jawetz, litigation fellow for the NPP. “The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did more for its 263 stray pets than the sheriff did for the more than 6,500 men, women and children left in his care.”
The inhumanity in the incarceration systems is overwhelming—but the #JustUs campaign describes the way in which each individual citizen can make a difference, by demanding much-needed legislation and emergency planning that recognizes prisoners’ humanity.
How to Take Action
In order to demand change, you can join the digital campaign, which provides a list of local representatives based on your address and even loads a prewritten letter to send directly to your representatives.
JLUSA has created a detailed outline on how to craft these crucial policies, urging policy makers to “decarcerate”—release individuals from prison—based on a triage position. This would entail removing those at the highest risk (such as pregnant and immunocompromised prisoners), as well as those with upcoming release dates.
“The reason we’re launching this campaign is because our voices must be heard,” Hoskins concluded.
“Communities need this change. I’ve always loved this quote: ‘No movement has ever been successful until those most oppressed rise up into leadership and demand change.’”