#CagingCOVID: Stopping the Spread Behind Bars

While the world is trying to flatten the curve of a pandemic without end in sight, U.S. prisons and detention centers continue to be COVID-19 hotspots, warehousing millions and failing to make the substantial populations reductions needed to create conditions of social distance.

#CagingCOVID is a campaign to shine a light on mass incarceration in a time of a public health crisis, and apply pressure to use parole, clemency and decarceration at local and federal levels to stop the spread of the virus behind bars.

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State Repression, Criminalizing Dissent and COVID-19 Exposure in Bradford County Jail

Jan 8, 2021 | by Nation Inside team

Interview with Dami Feral, of the COVID-19 Hotline for Incarcerated People, who was arrested at December 6 FSP Noise Demo #ForKarenSmith

Tell me about the demonstration and why you were there?

The purpose of the demonstration was to bring attention to the dangerous and inhumane conditions in Florida jails, prisons, and detention centers. Nearly a hundred and ninety thousand people are behind bars in the state, federal and county facilities combined. Around 30,000 of those have not even been convicted of a crime, but simply can’t avoid bail or fines, so they’re stuck behind bars and subjected not only to cruel and arbitrary treatment but life-threatening unsafe health conditions in the midst of this pandemic. Incarceration doesn’t make communities safer; not only does it tear apart communities and families, it endangers the lives of both inmates and prison guards and staff by concentrating people in an environment where they’re not allowed to take sensible precautions to prevent the spread of COVID. It’s a public health and human rights disaster, and the near 200 inmates and staff who are already confirmed to have died because of unsafe conditions in these state facilities are just more blood on the hands of DeSantis and the other criminals responsible for Florida’s prison nightmare. 

This protest was one part of a wave of resistance across the state and beyond against lethally cruel prison policies, including noise demonstrations at jails, press conferences with immigrant families at migrant detention centers, and protests against private prison profiteers like the GEO Group and CoreCivic. What’s happening here in Florida is part of a nationwide wave of resistance by prisoners and detainees along with their supporters on the outside, demanding an end to mass incarceration and reinvestment in our communities, instead of the police departments and prison systems that tear them apart.

What led to your arrest?

I can’t speak about the specific circumstances of my arrest, as the case is still pending. But I can say that the cruelty, disrespect, totally arbitrary treatment, lack of concern for basic health precautions, and denial of basic rights and human decency that I experienced at every step of the process in Bradford County is absolutely normal standard procedure for the Florida criminal legal system. As an advocate with the South Florida COVID-19 Hotline for Incarcerated People (CHIP), I hear stories every day about police and guard brutality, medical neglect, absurdly high bail, completely unjustified arrests, and worse. We’ve spoken with hundreds of prisoners across the state since the pandemic began, and the conditions folks are experiencing right here in our backyards are horrifying beyond belief. My arrest was just another example of these same dynamics, which are even worse for tens of thousands of others in the Florida prison system.

How were COVID precautions as you were arrested and taken to Holding?

The entire process showed the sheriff department’s criminal disregard for my (and their own) health. The cops refused to pull my mask back over my face after knocking it off when tackling me and arresting me and yelling unmasked in my face. Most of the cops outside the prison, at booking and inside the jail, as well as prisoners delivering food trays, were not wearing masks, even after I repeatedly asked them to. I wasn’t able to properly wear mine when chained, resulting in me being exposed directly to others, and they didn’t allow me to wash my hands before forcing me to remove my piercings. My isolation cell was filthy, with a dirty sheet and no access to clean water, sanitizer or soap to clean it. Nor was there any way to clean the dirty phone receiver shared by all inmates. No COVID test or even temperature check was done at any point. People were being brought into cells with no air circulation and moved around with no quarantine. In short, you couldn’t design a better environment for the spread of infectious disease. Any claims the sheriff’s department or jail make about taking necessary precaution are literally bald faced lies. They are putting lives at risk—ours, their own, and the general public—through their callous and irresponsible behavior.

Tell me a little about the first appearance hearing and how it went.

The way that the judge treated me, my codefendants, and the other people who were appearing showed the same cruelty, arbitrariness, and disregard for health and decency that we experienced during our arrest and in jail. Despite the fact that there was clearly no probable cause for the felony chargewhich even the judge admittedhe gave the state 72 hours to come up with evidence, forcing us to stay in jail at extreme risk for COVID on a completely bogus charge. For the made-up felony with no probable cause and two minor misdemeanors, my total bail was set at a completely insane $40,000 – just for being present at a protest.

Only because I am lucky enough to have the support of amazing networks of solidarity from other activists was I able to get bonded out, unlike the vast majority of poor people trapped in this system. That’s why many of the people we talk to on our hotline have been sitting in jail for months or even years awaiting trial, simply because they can’t afford bail. This would be cruel and unjust in any circumstances; in the context of a fatal pandemic, it’s literally insane. It’s homicidal. This won’t be news to anyone who pays attention to the court and prison system here, but it was just more evidence that this system has nothing to do with “justice”.

It was to do with punishing the poor and anyone who speaks out against the status quo, and looting poor people to fund bail bond companies and county budgets. People like us who are held for ransom and given the “choice” to either shell out tens of thousands of dollars on completely made up charges or else rot in jail for unknown lengths of time facing medical neglect and high risk of COVID: it’s just extortion, plain and simple. Profits for private prisons and bail bond companies, and local governments balance their budgets, all on the backs of poor people and anyone who fights back.

The sheriffs office said that they’re still working towards finding the specific people that allegedly vandalized the property but said that because you three were a part of the demonstration and everyone was working in unison, you three were then charged with that. Can you comment on this?

I can’t comment on this in our specific case, since the charges are still pending, but I can tell you how this absurd strategy that the sheriff’s office is trying fits into broader patterns of the repression of dissent. Because the government hasn’t been successful at cracking down on powerful protest movements, they’re moving towards a strategy of collective punishment against anyone who takes a stand. On the first day Trump went into office, DC police mass arrested over 200 protestors simply for being on the street in a march and charged all of them with eight felonies each. The legal logic was that if you participate in a protest, every single person is legally liable for every single thing that happens in or near that protest, regardless of what any individual did. It’s collective guilt and collective punishment, meant to discourage anyone from protesting in any way. Fortunately, the arrested protestors fought back and beat every single one of the charges after a year and a half, which was a huge victory for the right to protest. 

But state governors are trying to pick up where Trump left off by using similar tactics to make all protest or dissent a crime. The ridiculous anti-protest bill DeSantis is trying to push through in Florida is a case in point. He wants people like us to get felony charges simply for protesting, and the Bradford County sheriff is just doing his bidding on the local level. Again, it’s not about crime or justice, but about trying to make it so dangerous for anyone to protest in any way that we just have to accept the brutality of the police, the cruelty of the prison system, the slashing of public services, the destruction of the environment, and the government’s lies about the extent of the COVID pandemic. Just this week DeSantis sent police to violently raid the home of the COVID whistleblower whose heroic efforts are the only reason we know something more about the extent of COVID’s spread in Florida. To DeSantis, it’s a crime to tell the truth about COVID, if it interferes with his donors’ profits or his chances for reelection. For the Bradford County sheriff, it’s a crime for people to bring attention to the criminal neglect prisoners are experiencing under his watch. 

In this context, it’s more important than ever for everyone with a conscience to speak out and take action against DeSantis, the prison system and its profiteers, and all of the unjust systems that keep ordinary Floridians trapped in poverty and vulnerable to COVID. Whether or not you know anyone in prison, your taxes are paying the bill for wasteful and cruel mass incarceration policies, and it’s your health on the line when the virus spreads out of control in these facilities and spreads through police, guards, and staff to the rest of the community. How many lives have to be ruined or lost before we say enough is enough?