News Brief: Widespread Indifference to Covid-19 in Prisons

Citations Needed | April 8, 2020 | Transcript

Rikers Island, New York. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and you can rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts, that is always so appreciated. We are doing these News Briefs in between our full length episodes as often as we can. There is a lot of news obviously moving very quickly these days because of the COVID-19 crisis and what we are trying to do is not only point out some of the shittier takes, some of the media tropes that we are seeing repeated ad nauseam now, but trying to also talk about some of the most underreported stories, some of the things that the media is missing.

Adam: On this News Brief, we’re going to discuss how the media has covered the COVID crisis in prisons and jails. We want to start off by sort of giving a sense of the scope of the problem. Now I want to clarify that by the time you’re listening to this, on Wednesday, we are recording this on Saturday April 4, the statistics will be out of date, it’ll probably be much worse by the time you’re listening to this, whether it’s Wednesday or even after obviously. So as of April 4, the statistics are, in select prisons we’re picking here, that New York City’s Rikers Island has the highest infection rate in the world at 5.41 percent. The population of the jail is 4,422, there’s 239 cases, which means out of 1000 people 54 of them have Coronavirus. That will again very likely be much larger by the time you’re listening to this. Cook County Jail, which is the jail for Chicago, Illinois currently has 270 people who’ve tested positive for COVID. 210 are incarcerated, 60 are the staff. There are two people dead in Stateville prison in Joliet, which is a state prison in Illinois, hundreds more have tested positive. This is not unique to those places. These are just sort of some snapshots to give you a sense of the scope of the problem. Now you may be shocked to learn that this is not the highest media priority. There has been reporting on it: local news, New York Times, AP, Reuters. What we haven’t really seen is we haven’t seen broad national or public discussion about it. We haven’t seen major columns in The New York Times, Washington Post. We’ve seen, I think, a couple segments on MSNBC, actually, I think they were daytime segments and there was one short one on Chris Hayes, but the urgency with which we are addressing the COVID crisis such that it is, has not trickled down to jails and certainly hasn’t done proportionate to the urgency of the problem, which is to say, every one of, you know, Mayor de Blasio, Cuomo — Cuomo eventually released 1,100 prisoners after initially dragging his feet for weeks — but Governor Pritzker of Illinois is set to do it, I think you’ll hear in this interview, we talked about how he hasn’t done it, but I think he’s going to very soon, the word on the street is. But this is all done reluctantly, done under pressure, not just from prison activists and abolitionists, but also health officials, is that we’re told that social distancing is this huge morally important thing to do and then we turn around and say, ‘Oh, we’re just going to ignore what’s going on in jails,’ who by definition, cannot socially distance based on the way we make our jails. So imagine taking, you know, everyone freaks out about the cruise ships, right? Cruise ships are this kind of petri dish, they’re kind of a punchline at this point, but take a cruise ship, shrink it by 50 percent, shove twice as many people in there, and then put that cruise ship on land and we call those jails and we call those prisons. If I told you the statistics of some, you know, if I said it was called the USS Rikers, and it was in, it was off in the Atlantic, we would be covering this nonstop. But because these people are un-personed because they’re not considered morally relevant to our political discourse, we talk about it every now and then but it doesn’t have the same urgency and it doesn’t have the same framing of, there’s a very simple solution to this. What you see is a lot of Nima, as we talked about offline, you see a lot of handwringing about ‘How do we make it more sanitary? Let’s get some more soap into prisons.’ But this is the same, there was that week period where corporate America, the kind of Chamber of Commerce crowd was in denial about this and they tried the same thing, right? ‘Oh, we’re going to wipe down this and we’re going to,’ it’s like that doesn’t work. The most reliable form of preventing this disease from spreading is social distancing.

Nima: Right, later on this News Brief, we’re going to be speaking with two guests, the first Brandi Starr, an activist from Braidwood, Illinois, whose ex-husband is currently incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center, a prison just outside Chicago.

[Begin Clip]

Brandi Starr: Everybody is like, ‘Oh, well, they’re prisoners.’ They don’t really care. I’m, like, too bad he was given a year, not a life sentence. So, you know, he should get the same care as everybody else should, even the people that were given life sentences, who are we to say that they don’t deserve the correct things to protect themselves.

[End Clip]

Nima: We will also speak with Bianca Tylek, Founder and Executive Director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex and ending the exploitation of those it touches.

[Begin Clip]

Bianca Tylek: There is a misunderstanding or a lack of understanding that just how much correctional health impacts public health. I tell people all the time if humanity doesn’t do it for you for why we should not allow COVID-19 to spread within prisons that hopefully your own well being does and the reality is is that the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, as we know will happen, because prisons and jails are just not set up in any way for social distancing to take place and it’s really an easy breeding ground for contagious disease, will absolutely drastically negatively impact us on the outside.

[End Clip]

Nima: There’s also the point we’re seeing this reported on a little bit is that, you know, even if you’re kind of a callous, heartless, asshole who doesn’t think that people who are incarcerated are human, corrections officers are also then being exposed and they are not staying within the confines of jail or prison walls of course, right? They are going home to their families after their shifts, and then going back and forth. So then whether they are bringing COVID out into communities and their families or bringing it into prisons themselves after being exposed on the outside, that is another consideration to keep in mind. Oftentimes, that kind of focus on corrections officers or law enforcement will actually get more media attention then the public health concerns when it involves people who are incarcerated, hence the division of humanity here, right? The kind of tiered approach to who matters. But what we have seen, taking Rikers Island, for instance, is that already — and remember this is recorded a few days before you’re hearing this so these numbers may have changed by the time this premieres — but four corrections officers, as of this past weekend, have died from COVID-19, another 273 staff at Rikers Island Jail in New York City have been infected. Those are the numbers that are already reported and official. The numbers about infected, the numbers about who is actually carrying this are surely higher than what is officially tested.

Adam: Yeah, so to me the death rate is actually a better proxy to go off of then confirmed cases since confirmed cases are largely a function of testing people who are symptomatic or already, you know, hanging on for dear life. One thing we want to also mention before we dive into these interviews is the racial aspect of this, or should I say the racist aspect of this. What the coronavirus has done is it has amplified and exacerbated existing inequities in a very dramatic and horrific way. So, we already had these underlying problems of bad health care, poor central planning, a glib venal president and a glib and venal ruling class who don’t give a shit about the poor and now when you’re talking about a deadly virus that disproportionately harms and affects the poor by its very nature, this has manifested in racial inequities that are quite staggering. So Michigan, unlike some other places, quite a few other places, forced its health department to keep racial tabs on who’s dying so African Americans make up for 14 percent of the population of Michigan, they’re making up 41 percent of the deaths. This is data also reflected in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, African Americans make up 81 percent of the 27 deaths, despite being 26 percent of the population. And other places, New York, anecdotally, we’ve seen this as well. We don’t know how this is going to play out for sure. But right now we’re seeing what is basically a three X representation in these two places. There are three key reasons why that is, Nima, we’ve talked about this, of course, African Americans in general are less likely to have health care, less likely to take preventive steps, because they have a tendency to be more poor and uninsured. And they’re more likely, of course, to have underlying conditions.

Nima: Yeah, the prevalence of pre-existing conditions and the effect that that has on population health and thus in a public health crisis are just so exacerbated and become so much more deadly, cannot be understated and there’s always a huge racial disparity in terms of these health conditions as they exist in this country. So, you know, according to the CDC, high blood pressure is already most common in non-Hispanic black adults at 54 percent and African Americans already have the highest death rate in this country from heart disease. So, when it comes to diabetes, for instance, a 2015 National Medical Association Scientific Assembly, had these statistics reported, quote, “African American patients are more likely than white patients to have diabetes. The risk of diabetes is 77% higher among African Americans than among non-Hispanic white Americans. The rate of diagnosis of diabetes in non-Hispanic African Americans is 18.7% compared to 7.1%.” So these statistics actually were relatively recently reported on in an article written by Charles Blow in The New York Times, so it is good that some of this is getting reported but so much of what we’re seeing is the inherent connection between race, class, poverty and public health. An article in Health Affairs released last month written by Emily A. Benfer and Lindsey F. Wiley really spoke to this and I urge everyone to read it. We will link to it in the show notes and it said this, among other things, quote:

According to the most recent data from the Census Bureau, 38.1 million people, or 11.8 percent of the U.S. population, were living in poverty in 2018. The census report shows the risk of poverty is concentrated in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, and among people with disabilities and the elderly (who are at greatest risk for COVID-19 morbidity and mortality). The lower a person’s socioeconomic status, the more limited their resources and ability to access essential goods and services, and the greater their chance of suffering from chronic disease, including conditions like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes that may increase the mortality risk of COVID-19. Individuals and families in poverty have less control over their environment and few to no alternatives to substandard housing. These effects are exacerbated for people of color who are subjected to the consequences of discrimination and segregation in housing, on top of affordability challenges.

End quote.

Then think about that in terms of who is in jail, who is in prison, how those conditions are then even more dangerous in those scenarios where people cannot separate themselves, when the quality of a living space, to even call it that, is already starting at such a low standard.

Adam: Yeah. And the remaining two factors, of course, are within the healthcare system there’s a lot of interpersonal racism that’s not even connected to class. It’s just African Americans have a higher rate of being ignored, assuming people are being hypochondriacs, et cetera. And then the final factor, which I think is even more depressing is that because of who we’ve determined to be essential workers — grocery store workers, service workers, food delivery workers —

Nima: Package delivery, warehouse workers. Of course.

Adam: That these people are disproportionately black and Latino. So when Joe Biden or The Wall Street Journal or whomever says something, the fact of ‘We are all in this together, the virus doesn’t see race.’ Not true. We are definitely not in this together. There’s definitely a group of people who went off the second this thing popped off to their second and third houses in upstate New York or the Hamptons or upstate in Wisconsin, they are definitely not in it with you. They don’t care about you. And you saw that with some of the trial balloons that were first floated about two weeks ago where people were like, ‘Eh, maybe, let’s kill some people.’ You know, Thomas Friedman, Bret Stevens, ‘Let’s just throw this out there, what if we just murdered some folks?’ That the reason why they’re willing to have that conversation, the reason why they’re willing to float that sort of vaguely genocidal trial balloon is because they’re not really going to be the ones that die, which is why I think when you look at this, set aside the racial issue, when you look at this later, I think as this thing begins to sort of take shape, and you look at this as a class issue, you will absolutely see, I believe in terms of infection rates are not really what you need to look at, what you need to look at is you need to look at deaths because so much of who lives and who dies, is of course very much informed by whether or not you get affected initially, which is informed by proximity etcetera but also, I think more importantly, and I think this will again will play out, is what kind of care do you have? Access to ventilators, access to top-tier diamond, platinum healthcare, that that’s going to basically manifest to where if you are very wealthy there’s very little risk comparatively speaking whereas those who are poor, those who have to rush into overstuffed ICU and ER rooms in Queens, that their chances are going to be far, far less. So again, I think it’s super important that we emphasize that we are absolutely not in this together and there’s no other place we are definitely less than this together then when it comes to how we treat people in prisons and jails.

Nima: To talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by Brandi Starr, an activist from Braidwood, Illinois, whose ex-husband is currently incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center, a prison just outside Chicago. Brandi is going to join us in just a moment. Please stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Brandi Starr, an activist who joins us from Braidwood, Illinois. Brandi, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Brandi Starr: You are welcome.

Adam: Thank you so much for coming on. We are trying to get our brains around what’s going on right now in prisons with regard to COVID, coronavirus and you had reached out to friend of the show slash wife of me, Sarah Lazare, about Stateville Prison and we were excited to talk to you about it. I want to sort of begin by you kind of giving, if you could just talk to me about your story, you mentioned that your ex-husband, the father of your children is inside of Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois, where we know there’s been a big COVID-19 breakout, I’m sure only a fraction of which we fully know and I’m sure by the time this even airs, it’ll be much worse.

(Via The Times Weekly)

Brandi Starr: So my kids’ dad is there, he was given a very short sentence, a year there, and so I’m not sure why they’re holding so many people, they’re super overcrowded, but apparently several, up into hundreds of people in there that have tested positive with either the virus or the symptoms, and so it’s pretty scary. The guys are all serving these people and cleaning up after these people yet they’re not getting any protective gear. So they’re transferring it back to the population when they go back. And then they’re not given hand sanitizer or enough soap or anything to keep themselves from spreading it.

Nima: Yeah, I think that, you know, during this emerging and now a very, very real public health crisis, which is still on the upswing, unfortunately and I think we’re just going to be hearing about so many more cases like this, in the midst of this, there’s actually been a slight uptick in what we are hearing is going on inside jails and prisons in this country. There’s been a bit more outrage I think, than usual, about what kind of injustice incarcerated people really do face and the dangerous conditions in which they live. From what you’ve heard, how possible is it even to stay safe and healthy inside? How can you even physically or socially distance?

Brandi Starr: It’s almost impossible. It’s almost impossible. For one, you can’t really physically social distance yourself because they’re overpopulated. So there’s too many people for you to stay six foot from anybody. And then plus, with the rules that they have, you can only go certain places and do certain things so that stops there. You know, without a certain temperature, they’re not allowed to see a doctor so then they’re just sitting there thinking that, you know, do I have this or do I don’t, and if they do, then they’ve already sat there and spread it to everybody else possibly. They’re having to serve these people that are in quarantine that have tested positive and they’re not given even gloves.

Adam: Yeah, so we know from reports, interviews with Dr. John Walsh at Stateville, who is the doctor there, says he’s, quote, “overwhelmed.” So they have nine incarcerated people on ventilators, one person has died, again, I’m sure by the time this is airing it’ll-

Brandi Starr: Right. Yeah, exactly. So they’re taking it back from the quarantine to population and then you’re risking everybody in population and then you’ve got the COs that come in and you know, that are talking to these guys and stuff like that so then they’re sending it to them because from what I understand a lot of the correction officers have also tested positive.

Adam: So in your activism, attempting to get people to care about this issue, what are some of the things you’ve run up against either interpersonally with friends you’ve talked to, reporters you’ve talked to, anyone you’ve tried to get their attention what do you find is kind of the response?

Brandi Starr: I find everybody is like, ‘Oh, well, they’re prisoners.’ They don’t really care. I’m like too bad he was given a year, not a life sentence. So, you know, he should get the same care as everybody else should, even the people that were given life sentences, who are we to say that they don’t deserve the correct things to protect themselves.

Nima: Well, right. I mean, what this winds up doing is if there’s no concern for the health of people who are experiencing incarceration, then what you’re doing is you’re effectively giving a life sentence to everyone and condemning everyone to the worst possible scenarios, by virtue of the fact that they are where they happen to be through whatever landed people there which is not always are often people’s fault and so it’s this turning a year of time into potentially a different kind of life sentence or worse.

Brandi Starr: Yeah, so I also spoke to an officer that works there and she tells me, you know, they can’t afford it, they can’t afford the gloves and masks to give out every time they go into see somebody or pick up trash. I’m, like, well, maybe you’d let some of these part time people that are there for a year or there on simple minor violations go home, you know, put them into a 14 day quarantine if they don’t have any signs then send them back home and then make space for people that have to stay there to distance themselves and to be able to afford to buy extra masks for these guys and whatever they need to do.

Adam: Yeah, because to be clear, other states have done that. New Jersey released over 1,000 prisoners, New York released 1,100.

Brandi Starr: To my knowledge, they haven’t released anybody yet.

Adam: Yeah, because we supposedly have this great progressive governor, Governor Pritzker. There’s a very, very, very unlikely chance he listens to the show, but if he did listen to the show, what would you say to the governor, if you could speak to him?

Brandi Starr: Oh, my gosh, there’s probably a lot I would say to him, but I think he’s an idiot, to me. He doesn’t listen to anything and he hasn’t made any progress with anything and I would say to open his eyes and realize that he’s allowing these guys not just spread it to each other, but spread it to the employees there that are going out and spreading it to his people. Like we’re his people, you know, and he’s not doing much to protect us.

Nima: Have you been able to speak to your ex-husband on a regular basis? What is the communication ability and are you also seeing, you know, phone calls or the ability to video conference, email? How has that been affected by this? Or is that an additional burden?

Brandi Starr: Right. Well, yeah, we haven’t been able to see him whatsoever. So he has to call and that costs money, obviously, we speak to him, the kids speak to him, you know, about daily and he’s scared to death. He actually works in the kitchen there. So he serves these people. He comes out and I’m like working in the kitchen, they should at least get gloves anyway but he doesn’t. So he can’t, you know, see the people he does have here or barely talk to them because they limit everything right now, besides phone calls. They are allowed to make phone calls but they’re limited to time and then people are standing on top of each other using the same phone, again without getting Lysol or wipes or anything.

Adam: Yeah. So everyone’s pretty much going to get it.

Brandi Starr: Yeah, pretty much, pretty much that entire prison is doomed.

Adam: How have you viewed the media’s coverage of this? I mean, I assume, again, there’s been sporadic coverage here and there but I mean, if you sit down and turn on the evening news, or the local papers, do you feel like-

Brandi Starr: Yeah, I’ve read a couple of things but I don’t feel like it’s being covered enough at all. I feel like, you know, and I commented on one news article that was posted from the Joliet Patch, I believe, and, um, it was a bad thing, you know, ‘Oh, well, there’s no money and let them die.’ I’m, like, are you serious right now? Seriously, this is how people feel and even the news, they’re covering, you know, everything else but they are humans too.

Adam: Yeah. I mean, to me, it’s kind of built into the, the dehumanization is very prevalent, I mean, the Double-A a baseball team in Joliet’s the Joliet Slammers, which is based on the infamous prison in Joliet. I mean, it’s sort of it’s all a joke and their mascot is the Jailbirds, right? It’s sort of funny.

Brandi Starr: Right, right. It’s not funny, though.

Adam: Exactly.

Brandi Starr: It’s really not.

Adam: No it’s not.

Brandi Starr: I told the guy, I was, like, you know, there’s some people that do have, prison doesn’t change everybody and who knows whatever but I don’t feel like there’s all bad people in prison. I really don’t. I never have, I just, you know, sometimes people make mistakes and things happen, but people change and so they deserve to be treated as if, you know, one day they’re going to go back into society and be able to become something themselves.

Nima: Yeah, and I would even add that even if that isn’t the assumption, which I think it should be, but even if that isn’t the assumption, people are still afforded basic humanity and if they’re being kept in a place against their will they need to be taken care of.

Brandi Starr: Right.

Nima: Is there anything that you would like our listeners to know, things for people to kind of pay attention to to make those appeals to certain officials, anything that you want to leave us with?

Brandi Starr: There’s actually a survey from a place that actually I found out from my family member who is incarcerated, he tells me that there’s a survey called the People’s Law Center in Chicago, there’s a survey you can fill out. If people will fill that out and get some attention to this and maybe help getting some of these guys out of there following what some of the other states have done and giving a chance to put a cap on the virus out there because it’s spreading like crazy and soon everybody in there is going to have it, and they’re all going to die because there’s not enough oxygen to give them, there’s not enough ventilators, there’s not enough anything. So pretty soon, they’re not going to have a chance. So everybody really needs to, you know, fight for them too.

Nima: Absolutely. And we will link to that in our show notes. And just once again, Brandi Starr, an activist who’s joining us from Braidwood, Illinois, Brandi, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Brandi Starr: Thank you guys so much for having me.


Adam: Yeah, it’s, you know, it’s very difficult to get information on the inside of prisons and jails by design so oftentimes, you rely on loved ones and their connection to sort of bring stories to light because when Sarah Lazare first published her piece on Stateville Prison, in In These Times, Brandi reached out to Sarah, you know, we jumped at the chance to have her on the podcast because it’s such a personal and visceral thing for people. And you sort of see the way in which she’s doing what we try to do, but in a kind of direct way with people she’s lobbying where you say like these are human beings, which seems like it would be in a moral or civilized society be a simple task, but her primary rhetorical and political barrier is getting lawmakers and the public and prison officials and Department of Corrections officials to see these people as human beings and it’s frustrating, you know, you feel like you’re yelling into a void and I know that from people I’ve spoken to who are trying to get people out of Cook County where I live, you know, it’s a game of hot potato. Nobody wants to own the issue.

Nima: Well, I think that that’s what’s so important here that we’re quick to impose a sort of hierarchy of humanity in these moments of crisis — who deserves attention, who deserves care, who deserves to live — and yet we’re very fast, equally as fast, to ascribe hero status to people who say, aren’t as awful as Donald Trump, right? Which makes sense and do you want someone to not be him who has some sort of modicum of, you know, respect for people, for the ability to speak, the ability to not simply lie literally all the time and deflect responsibility, but that hero status is being applied, I think very often to big city mayors and also certainly governors and what we’re seeing is here in New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged as, like, everyone’s new boyfriend, who is the un-Trump during all of this, who has, you know, daily press briefings with PowerPoints that are very impressive and he’s, you know, taking control but at the same time, what is not being seen in those moments of leadership is that he is currently using prison labor to re-bottle hand sanitizer and paying cents on the dollar, you know, like $2 an hour, this, you know, effectively slave labor to do this and burnish his own reputation. He’s refusing to release more and more people who are incarcerated, refusing to release elderly and sick people who are incarcerated from Rikers Island. Meanwhile, in a new budget, he is continuing to slash Medicaid funding, rather than, God forbid, heaven forfend, raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers. Some of those New Yorkers are the richest people in the world. And so refusing to do those things while still maintaining this kind of reputation as the non-Trumpian good leader in all of this, I think we’re seeing this with a number of governors around the country as well, we also need to consider what they are not doing while they’re getting their profiles raised.

Adam: Yeah, because everybody wants to sort of do the easy stuff where you point at things and wear hard hats and look like you’re slapping heads and have PowerPoint presentations, but nobody wants to do the unpopular stuff, which is like, I don’t know, maybe releasing the thousands of people for whom social distancing is literally impossible by design, because shaming people in prisons is part of the purpose of prisons.

Nima: To talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by our second guest today, Bianca Tylek, Founder and Executive Director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex. We’re going to talk to Bianca in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Bianca Tylek. Bianca, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Bianca Tylek: Thank you for having me.

Adam: Yes. So we are trying to sort of pin down the scope of and even being delayed a few days this is probably going to be out of date by the time this airs and it’s going to be a million times worse.

Bianca Tylek: Literally everything goes out of date within, like, two hours.

Adam: Right because of the sort of nonlinear nature of the problem, especially within jails and prisons. So I want to start off by just sort of qualifying that, that even the numbers we’re using probably won’t be up to date but I want to start off by talking about your perspective, the scope of the problem, how serious the COVID crisis is, versus how urgently the media and lawmakers are treating it.

Bianca Tylek

Bianca Tylek: Yeah, I think there’s no doubt, look, our response overall in the US has obviously been very slow, in many places, and unfortunately, still, in some places not being taken particularly seriously. I live in the epicenter of COVID-19 in the US in New York. And so, certainly here, life has changed. But I think if there’s been a delay in the general public, then the delay inside is exponentially greater. And so it took a significant amount of work on behalf of advocates to even start moving legislators or elected officials to release people. And that process is still happening even weeks basically into our response, our national response and every single time we see elected leaders get on television and tell us about how grave the issue is how people are going to die if social distancing is not taken into account and taken seriously, they’ve really made such a mockery, I think, on our criminal legal system and how little has been done to save folks who are incarcerated. And I think part of that is because there is a misunderstanding or a lack of understanding that just how much correctional health impacts public health. I tell people all the time if humanity doesn’t do it for you for why we should not allow COVID-19 to spread within prisons, and hopefully your own well being does. And the reality is is that the spread of COVID-19 and the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, as we know, will happen, because prisons and jails are just not set up in any way for social distancing to take place and it’s really an easy breeding ground for contagious disease will absolutely drastically impact, negatively impact us on the outside.

Nima: You wrote something recently that I really want to dig into, which is how workers who are incarcerated are really on the front lines of providing safety equipment or providing other goods for first responders, for people on the outside fighting against this public health crisis, trying to save people but what you kind of revealed through this thread is that incarcerated workers are manufacturing gowns and masks, in New York State here they’re producing hand sanitizer and often not able to even use those products, or they’re kind of repackaging them for the benefit of the governor’s poll numbers. What are we seeing in terms of how officials like Andrew Cuomo in New York are being hailed as leaders in this, and what we’re seeing him fail to do when it comes to the workers that are providing all of this, you know, personal protective equipment?

Bianca Tylek: So I think that his first failure is that he hasn’t freed enough people, right? And this goes back to, I think, an earlier question, like the first question that you asked, which is, where have the lags been? And the reality is, we quite simply just haven’t freed enough people. We have 2.2 million people in prison in the US. And we’re piecemeal reviewing cases, you know, and doing things incredibly slowly to actually get people out. And so, you know, I think there needs to be these larger swath releases, particularly, you know, when we’re looking at the elderly, when we’re looking at the ailing, when we’re looking at parole violations, misdemeanors, I mean, really, quite frankly many, many folks who shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place and I hope we revisit that conversation. So I think Governor Cuomo’s first mistake is just how lightly he’s taking how corona will impact those who are inside but then secondly, he’s absolutely making not just light, not just jokes, but really again, a mockery of the criminal legal system in New York. And he, you know, he had this grand announcement a few weeks ago, around, as he said, New York was now announcing its new line of hand sanitizer. New York doesn’t manufacture anything. It’s a state. People manufacture things and in this case, it’s incarcerated people which were not mentioned at all in his announcement, he joked about how cheaply these items could be made, the hand sanitizer, the different sizes, the floral smell and the new recipe that they had come up with. He even mocked the corporations like Purell saying that if they didn’t get their price gouging under control that he would unleash this new hand sanitizer product that incarcerated people are making in the private market, which for the record is completely illegal and barred by federal law. With that said, that type of response is a response that, while astounding, I think to many is really common. It’s actually quite dumbfounding just how common it is. And so, as you said, there are incarcerated people all over this country from Connecticut to Tennessee to Colorado to Alaska, Massachusetts, Indiana, you name it, that we have now records, documentation, reports of those states using incarcerated people, prison labor, at just cents an hour to manufacture and produce supplies, personal protective equipment in the shortages that we’re experiencing now. And often in those factories, they are not offered the very protections that they’re essentially creating, right? They’re not allowed to use the masks or the hand sanitizer, often they’re in crowded workspaces where social distancing is not regularly practiced. But underlying all of that is this notion that we consistently put prison labor to use at times of public crisis. And so incarcerated workers, also, you know, folks who are essentially enslaved, are consistent parts of emergency response plans. In fact, in New York City, it was just revealed within the last few days or few weeks that there was an emergency release plan published back in 2008 that stated that incarcerated workers would be used to dig mass graves should there ever be a pandemic or a health crisis like the one we’re undergoing today. And in fact that was kicked into gear this week. And so these things have been long standing practices, like I said, they’re built into city and state emergency plans, and it mimics what happened in California last year, with incarcerated workers fighting fires, fighting the California wildfires. And the last thing I’ll sort of say on this is that it’s not just in the emergency response plans, it’s also just simply baked into state budgets, state revenue plans, all types of different proposals that the state will have. Just last year, Governor Cuomo, once again, released a plan to generate revenue for the state in a shortfall and the plan involved requiring everyone in New York to get a new license plate. Well, the only reason that that plan generated or was going to generate any revenue was because the people making the license plates were earning 26 cents an hour.

Adam: Right. You write, quote, “It’s disturbing how comfortable leaders are exploiting prison labor and how people do gymnastics to justify and defend it. This is slavery. This is convict leasing. We fought a war about it and yet here we are. We need to pay incarcerated workers real wages.” Now, from a public relations standpoint, people have somehow compartmentalized this in a different part of their brain and all these stories coming out about incarcerated people making the supplies, digging the graves, doing the absolute lowest rung work that is going to be required without getting any kind of protection themselves, that these inequities and the vulgarity of the system is sort of like with a lot of things, whether it’s sanctions or healthcare system, are making it undeniably horrible. And to what extent do you feel like this is a chance, unfortunate as it is for people in the incarcerated space to really make the case that this is just an extreme version of what we already did.

Bianca Tylek: Yeah, it’s been really interesting to me because I’ve been looking at our “essential workers” as we call them and it’s quite sad talking to a friend this weekend, you know, we’ve been treating our essential workers as if we mean they’re expendable workers.

Adam: Yep.

Bianca Tylek: And, you know, in large part, just everything that is happening for the healthcare workers or lack thereof, for grocery workers, for all of the workers at different companies that are striking at this point, because they’re not being paid hazard pay, right? And yet here we are talking about incarcerated workers not being paid really at all. And so that overall, we have that this is an opportunity to make the case as unfortunate as it is, right? I keep saying and I keep writing places if we can trust incarcerated workers with our lives, we can pay them real wages at the very least, right? It’s minimum wage. It’s not even the prevailing wage. It’s not even hazard pay. It’s not those things. It’s just an actual wage that reflects what the value of their work is. The hashtag that I’ve been using is #LaborIsLabor. And there’s no way to get away from that core value. That is just where we are. And so trying, you know, I think, we’re hoping that there’s a lot of things that this crisis is going to illuminate, right? And it’s not just about the criminal justice system there are many, many, many things. There’s things about the healthcare system, right? There’s things about the education system, things about all different types of systems in our country that are having a light shone on them in a way they really haven’t been exposed before and the criminal legal system is just another one of those systems and this practice of slavery inside of our prisons and jails will hopefully be another one of those things that we don’t just go back on and forget after today.

Nima: Yeah. The point that you’ve made that I think a lot of people make that can’t be made enough is involuntary servitude. Slavery is still legal under our Constitution, right? I mean, the 13th Amendment literally states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” and so this idea that somehow this is protected, I mean, this is not an anomaly, this is not a broken system, this is the system and somehow we need to completely reinvent that we need to tear that down to change that and, you know, possibly this moment of extreme crisis is a way that movements can really coalesce around that and move forward.

Bianca Tylek: I hope so.

Adam: One thing I would be remiss not to talk about, because I think this is a dynamic that’s very frustrating for a lot of people, is what we call Willie Horton-ism in Episode 100, right? There’s this idea that every single person knows and I think any, they all know, that the most humane and rational thing to do, not just for people incarcerated, but everybody in general, even if they don’t even care about them is to let them out of jail and prisons and to give them hotels and isolate them and give them cash supplements and take care of them, right? Everybody knows this but nobody wants to be the politician who owns it and then there’s this Willie Horton thing where someone gets released because of COVID and they go off and commit some horrific crime and it’s on the front page of the New York Post for the next three months, right? And this dynamic, I personally feel, is the single biggest barrier to reform even in a quote-unquote, “liberal” state or “liberal” city. And you see this a lot with even states that have released people that nobody really owns it, it’s this hot potato thing especially in New York, you know, de Blasio calls on attorney generals and the attorney generals call on the governor and all these people who can release people keep passing the buck. So from your work, I guess what I want to know is how do we get to — and this is a big question — but how do we begin to chip away at this Willie Horton dynamic where people are so scared to release that person who goes on does this sort of tabloid crime and then they have to suffer the political consequences of it?

Bianca Tylek: I think we need people of courage. I think we need leaders. I think we need people who we’ve elected to show us the way to actually act that way and behave that way. I think the whole notion that this is anything like Willie Horton is it’s really about prioritizing whose lives matter. Right? In the end, there will be many people who die. The question is who dies and how many and in what conditions and all of that and there’s the notion around something like that is about perhaps taking a risk though there are many ways to do this in a remarkably safe way, where the risks are so, so small that they’re not, you know, ever zero, I mean, humanity, humanity is imperfect. But what’s certain is that people will die in prison. People have already died in prison because of corona. And what is certain from everything that we’re seeing and from every public health official we’ve ever heard from in the last weeks and and months is that it will spread quickly, and that people will die fast and that we’ve already begun to see if you look at the numbers at Rikers, how many multiples higher is the infection rate at Rikers now than it is in the rest of New York City, the epicenter of COVID-19 in the entire US. And with it exploding in these environments among aging populations, because we know that that’s, you know, our population in prison has been getting consistently older, as we sentence more and more people to Life, longer sentences and all of that, then, you know, what we’re doing is deciding that we are happy to and willing to let some people die disproportionately people of color, disproportionately folks who are cash poor, at the expense of taking really healthy and completely manageable risks. And that’s unacceptable. And that’s just a lack of courage.

Adam: Because we even saw this with Cuomo going back on bail reform, even during the height of this crisis, which is the absolute worst message to send and that was it. I know it was a huge gut punch to a lot of activists in New York because that was such a, even the modest reforms

Bianca Tylek: Well, it hasn’t happened yet. So it’s not —

Adam: Sorry. I mean, he’s signaling —

Bianca Tylek: Don’t jinx anything! Literally happening as we speak.

Adam: I am not resting my hopes on Cuomo, but fair enough.

Bianca Tylek: There are other people in that fight, so —

Adam: It’s very depressing. You know, Iran releases 40 percent of its jail population and you think the US could at least crack —

Bianca Tylek: It was 54,000 people! Like, overnight.

Adam: Yeah. And then in the US do you think the US could maybe do 1 percent but we can’t even get that.

Bianca Tylek: Yeah. 1 percent for us would be 20,000 people. We’re not like anywhere near those figures right now.

Adam: No, no, we’re not.

Nima: So to shift gears just a touch Bianca, you and your organization, Worth Rises, address a lot of different aspects of the prison-industrial complex and one of the things that you are working on, is really kind of raising the profile of predatory prison phone companies. These telecom giants that are super predatory and exploit the families of incarcerated people, exploit people who are incarcerated as well and gouge them for money just to communicate. Now in this time where not only are people’s health severely at risk, but also there are no in person visits to jails and prisons anymore really, what are you seeing in terms of how this prison phone issue is being discussed in the press? Is it being discussed enough? What are we missing?

Bianca Tylek: It’s not being discussed at all. And where it is being discussed, what we keep seeing is sort of credit being given to these remarkably predatory corporations that have been preying on families and folks inside for decades, for giving out one or two free five minute, fifteen minute phone calls a week. We’re in a pandemic, as everyone, you know, is saying every minute of the day where all of us are stuck in our homes and isolating from other people and the only thing people want to do is be in touch, right? Well, that reality has been a reality for people who are incarcerated forever. But now as people are concerned, both families on the outside are concerned about their loved ones on the inside, knowing how shoddy prison healthcare is and how fast diseases like this will spread inside and people on the outside are worried about their loved ones on the outside, right? They are concerned about how fast it’s spreading in New York City or about their elderly grandmothers, or mothers even and, you know, want to make sure that they can be comforting. God forbid somebody gets sick. And what is one or two, five minute phone calls a week going to do? How do you ration that? When do you call? Do you call on Monday and say, ‘Okay, I’ll try Monday, Wednesday, but if somebody gets sick on Friday, I can’t talk to you again till next Monday.’ It’s ludicrous. And I think the biggest slap in the face really, is just how much these companies are trying to applaud themselves in this moment for that. They are in fact, I saw a tweet the other day from the Securus Foundation, which has blocked us on Twitter —

Nima: Securus is one of, there’s kind of like a duopoly in the prison phone communications industry, right?

Bianca Tylek: Yeah, exactly. There’s about two companies that own about 80 percent of the market and Securus’ foundation posted something on Twitter, saying that their hearts and minds were with incarcerated people and that they weren’t forgotten. Yeah, really?

Adam: Yeah, that’s wow.

Bianca Tylek: I mean, like, come on! Just don’t say anything. Like just don’t say anything if you’re not going to actually, I don’t care, my response is I don’t I don’t care about where your hearts and mind are I care about what you’re doing. And what they’re doing is making a handsome profit right now. And I say that because there’s something really important to know about these companies. So a number of years ago, they started introducing video calling into facilities around the country and basically this is what anyone else would recognize as FaceTime or Skype or Zoom now, but just video conferencing and what they did when they started introducing these services or technology into prisons and jails is they actually mandated that the facilities stop or limit in person visits in order to force people to use their systems. And those systems being remarkably expensive, right? And then after about a little less than a year, they realized that they were going to get absolutely demolished, whether in the media or even potentially through litigation and so they stopped requiring these clauses in these terms in their contracts. Now, important to note, many jails already had those contracts. Many had already done away with visits and they weren’t coming back just because it was no longer in the contract or, you know, their future contracts, but what’s interesting about that is that that’s exactly the environment COVID has created, it has created an environment in which visits cannot happen. This is the ideal world for prison telecom corporations, one in which people cannot be in touch in person with their loved one any other way, where they are forced to use their products so they can give out one measly five minute call, knowing that there’s a escalated need for communication right now, even if visits were intact. And now that visits aren’t, like double that, triple that, you know, you do the math, that what they’re giving away is negligible compared to what they’re going to actually see in increases in revenue right now. Not even just the status quo.

Nima: Right. I mean, these are the same companies that like, charge incarcerated people to read free ebooks on iPads.

Bianca Tylek: They charge people to read free ebooks, they also charge people for emails. That’s one of the things right now that is, I know it’s blowing people’s minds on Twitter, but I posted something and you know, I said, yes, this state is giving out three free email stamps and people are just perplexed by what the hell an email stamp is.

Adam: Yeah.

Bianca Tylek: Cause the rest of us don’t have stamps on our emails. I send probably hundreds of emails a day, in the course of my work day and folks inside actually have to attach a stamp to their email as if it’s quite literally mail and it has a delivery cost. And also they have this notion that it weighs something, you have to attach a stamp for every so many characters if you want to attach a photo, that’s an additional stamp, literally as if the thing weighs something.

Adam: You know, there’s the infamous tweet, ‘neoliberalism is monetizing the rot’ and I feel like that’s the definition of monetizing rot, it’s a fake market, none of this stuff needs to be a profit center at all. It’s just something we made up.

Bianca Tylek: Yeah, but now they want literal applause for giving out email scams for something that, as you said, or reading free ebooks, that should be free.

Nima: Because their thoughts and prayers are with them.

Adam: Yeah, thoughts and prayers.

Bianca Tylek: And for the record, media isn’t covering any of this.

Adam: Yeah, hopefully we can nudge that a little bit. Before you go, I do want to ask, I know people listening to this may feel outraged, frustrated, understandably so. What are some things people can do? What are some organizations they can look into or things they can do that can maybe help ameliorate this? What are some projects you’re working on or other people are working on that you can tell us about?

Bianca Tylek: So first thing I’d say is follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever your favorite social media is, @WorthRises. Feel free to also follow me @BiancaTylek, like I said, we have tons of actions consistently our own that we’re amplifying through those channels as well as those coming from colleagues, partners and allies in the movement. Right now we are running a campaign that we launched within the last few weeks in response to the predatory prison telecom industry and sort of its lack of response in this moment. I should also note that while the FCC got over 500 telecom corporations in the broader market to sign this Keep Americans Connected Pledge, like, glaringly missing from that pledge is not a single prison telecom company. And so we’re releasing, so we’re part of a few initiatives, one that as I said we recently launched called Connect Families Now, as you can follow that hashtag, but there’s a petition going out that we would love for people to sign, every single time you sign it, it actually sends an email to your state and federal legislators demanding that you’re governor, mayor, sheriff makes phone calls free at your local jail and your state prison. So we really invite people to sign that. You can find that, again, any of the many places on social media. There’s also petitions going around challenging the FCC to also demand that these companies participate in the Keep Americans Connected Pledge and institute free calls now, during this time. I should also say there’s also several state campaigns. So if you’re in New York or Connecticut, Louisiana, California, there are initiatives in all those states, Massachusetts, to deal with the cost of calls in prisons and jails. So definitely engage in one of those ways. And I mean, I can’t tell you the endless amount of petitions I’ve been seeing going around. I would say, follow Color of Change, one of our big partners, that has a tremendous amount of different initiatives going on. If you want to see resources around COVID and the crisis of incarceration I would visit Justice Collaborative. I think there’s, you know, there’s a fair number and then also, I would, you know, just any of the organizations fighting to just free people all over the country. So certainly the RAPP campaign, Release Aging People in Prison in New York, Dignity and Power Now out in California fighting in LA County, and then also Citizen Action in New York, those are organizations that are trying to deal with the bail reform and the rollbacks and, yeah, just kind of triage that entire crisis.

Nima: That is really important and amazing information and also, I think, a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Bianca Tylek, Founder and Executive Director of Worth Rises. Bianca, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Bianca Tylek: Thank you again so much for having me, and stay safe.


Adam: Yeah, so it’s the lack of political courage, really, it’s people who, again, everyone knows better, right? These aren’t stupid people, they’re not particularly bigoted on a personal level I’m sure, but they, they don’t have the courage to say what they know is right and liberal systems of accountability are very limited more than they were five years ago, 10 years ago, to be honest, given Black Lives Matter and some of the subsequent NGO nonprofit world that’s emerged around that, some of which is good, which is not good, that there’s at least a sort of ecosystem of like holding people accountable and pressuring them, because 10 years ago, you know, you just didn’t have any kind of institutional support. Now there’s a little bit and so you see Cuomo releasing 1,100 prisoners, you see some people releasing people in jail. Doesn’t matter what public officials say, nobody wants to be the guy who releases Willie Horton and this is already a horribly toxic, perverse incentive scheme. It’s triple, quadruple so when you have a mass pandemic outbreak in jails and prisons, and I think it’s not an excuse for inaction but I do think there’s also this kind of broader high-level propaganda effort that’s going to take probably years, decades to do where you sort of unlearn that concept. You unlearn the concept that everyone in jail is not expendable, they’re persons, or that even jail needs to be this place of just abject horror.

Nima: Because there’s some element of deserving, right? That if you’re there in the first place, you’ve then relinquished rights to live.

Adam: Well, and in one way people talk about it is in sort of Nazi-like rhetoric. I mean even people who sort of view themselves as being centrist or even liberal will say, like, ‘Oh, well, they’re infected, they shouldn’t leave.’ And it’s like, that’s not how this works, what do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to get out of jail and go up to you on the street and spit in your face? I mean, it’s, it’s just this idea of like containing the problem, put them in a cage and let them die. And aside from the fact that that’s not even something that’s possible, right? That’s not how this works. That’s not how viruses even work. But even assuming it is how it worked, that you’re going to cast off thousands of people, or hundreds of people in these prisons, a meaningful percentage, five to 10 percent of people to die because — what? — you don’t want to put them in hotel rooms because that creates some sort of, that’s, like, too luxurious for them?

Nima: Right.

Adam: For, like, three months, God forbid they’re not living in abject horror?

Nima: Right. No, exactly. I mean, there’s this idea that anyone in that situation can automatically be given not just the years that they have, the months, years, if it’s pre-trial, then even, you know, without sentencing, without being convicted of anything, right?

Adam: Well, yeah, I mean, we really didn’t even talk about that that much that a lot of these people in jail, Cook County Jail, 90, 95 percent have not been found guilty of a crime.

Nima: Right. Jails for the most part are people who are being held pre-trial, right? So think about that. People who have not been convicted of any crime, something as low level as shoplifting all the way up to let’s say, accusations of murder or worse, right? Whatever it is, these people have not been convicted and yet they are being given effectively a death sentence because of where they are, because prisons are being treated as this place where people can just now be allowed to die. And so we do hope that this News Brief has illuminated some of those things that are missing, I think, from our media discussion these days, and we cannot thank you enough for listening to this rather extended Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you again everyone for continuing to support the show whether that’s by following us on Twitter @CitationsPod or Facebook Citations Needed, certainly by those who are continuing to support us through Patreon at with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We cannot thank you enough for your continued support, especially at this time, and an extra special shout-out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks, everyone, for listening. We’ll see you next week.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.