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Eddie Conway talks to journalists Kim Kelly and Adryan Corcione about how the coronavirus pandemic is exposing the poor healthcare system in US prisons and jails.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: I’m Eddie Conway. Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. We have been following the state of prisons across the nation and the conditions of prisoners that’s at risk as a result of COVID-19. It’s important to point out here that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and many of the people locked up in the US would simply not be incarcerated if they were in other industrialized nations. Here to look at the unfolding developments inside the US penal facilities during this public crisis is Kim Kelly and to give us an update on what’s going on around the country is Adryan Corcione. Thanks for joining me.

Adryan Corcione: Of course.

Eddie Conway: Okay. I want to start off with an overview. Adryan, if we could start off with you and you could give us an update of what’s happening around the nation and then I will go to Kim Kelly and we’ll talk about Rikers Island.

Adryan Corcione: Thanks, Eddie. Since launching there’s a lot of trends that we can see that are applicable to all different types of facilities, whether it be county or city jails, state or federal prisons, private or public prisons, detention centers, what have you, a lot of people behind bars are impacted in really similar ways, although there’s definitely marginalizations that still exist. But one big observation is that even the general public doesn’t have access to testing so there’s a lot of people walking around who may be asymptomatic or people who do have symptoms but aren’t getting access to tests but for those behind bars, particularly prisoners, they have even less access to testing. People behind bars might be being isolated and quarantined within their prison with flu like symptoms and/or respiratory problems but there’s not really a system in place that we can ensure that the prisoners are getting access to testing so that we can have it confirmed. Lots of correctional officers do have access to testing, they are being tested, but the truth remains is that prison healthcare is really, really poor. It always has been and I think COVID-19 is exposing what was already there.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Let’s, for a minute, look at Rikers Island. Kim, can you give us an overview. We’ll go into some questions later on in detail but can you tell us exactly what’s happening right now?

Kim Kelly: Right. Well, I’ve been getting most of my updates from a dear friend of mine who’s been incarcerated there for the past few months. I actually just spoke to him yesterday and the situation right there is very dire. This is the point where [inaudible 00:03:26] have been releasing hundreds of people, which is not enough to help stem the spread of this epidemic. It’s a start and there are a lot more people that need to be let out but that’s the point we’re at. As of yesterday, so there’s probably more now, as of yesterday, about 100 people, incarcerated people, were diagnosed with COVID and there are also a number of correctional guards and all that, but my focus is on the people who are trapped there, who don’t get to leave at the end of the day. And at this point, for example, my friend, the person I talked to yesterday, he and his dorm have been in isolation and quarantine for the past eight days, 24 hour lockdown. They don’t have enough masks, they don’t have enough cleaning supplies, there isn’t adequate testing going on as Adrian said, people are still living on top of each other. It’s a really dire situation and is only going to get worse as the virus continues to spread and as the facilities on Rikers Island continue to fill up with people.

Eddie Conway: And there was a report in Intercept about mass graves being dug by prisoners and them being compensated. Do you know anything about that?

Kim Kelly: Right. Well, I actually reported on that a little while ago but there is an existing program, and has been at Rikers since, I think, 1867, wherein people who are in prison there, they are used to dig graves on Heart Island, which is the Potters Field on an island outside of … In the river. This has been happening for a very long time, people who are incarcerated there are used to dig graves for the city’s poor and indigent unclaimed people who die. And now there is this report … I think it was compiled in 2008 in the wake of everything that was happening then. I think it was the office of the city medical examiner. Their report or recommendations they put together for what would happen if a mass pandemic hit New York City and there is a section about what would happen if there was an overflow of bodies if the city morgue was just overflowing and it was decided that people who were incarcerated on Rikers Island would be the people who’d be tasked to dig those graves and now we’re at this point where it’s happening and where people are, according to the Interceptor, are being offered $6 an hour to dig these graves.
And I spoke to my friend yesterday, he hadn’t heard about it because his unit has been in lockdown but, like he said, a typical prison labor job at Rikers gets about $1 an hour so people, if they’re presented with this opportunity, to make more money, will they take it? Will the not? He said he wouldn’t but this is where we’re at, where people who are essentially being used to slave labors to dig mass graves for the dead in New York City.

Eddie Conway: Okay. But can you clear this up for me? Is that $6 an hour or $6 a day?

Kim Kelly: This is The Intercept’s reporting. I’m not sure what their sources are but they’re reporting that it was a $6 an hour job, which sounds pretty good until you think about the fact that bodies that are buried on Heart Island, they are not embalmed and they’re contained in pinewood boxes so there is a risk of exposure there on top of whatever mental strain that comes from knowing that you’re burying the bodies of the dead while you, yourself, are trapped in a prison.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Let’s look at Cook County Jail and see what’s happening there and also look at the state of California and their prisoner release.

Adryan Corcione: Yeah. California has a system in place where the state prison administration is reporting positive cases. I’m not sure about Illinois but, as we can see in perspective states like Louisiana, up until today, they were not reporting the positives and the state Department of Corrections was not specifying which facilities where had prisoners or correctional officers that had tested positive but I checked the site today and now they do. And we saw that in Georgia as well, where at first, the Georgia Department of Corrections was not disclosing which facilities out of sighting HIPA violations, but once there is a prisoner death, at [inaudible 00:08:13] State Prison in Georgia, they’re now publishing which facilities have tested positive and then that goes back to, you mentioned in Cook County in Illinois, a trend that we see nationally is that people are dying. People are dying behind bars from COVID-19 and these are otherwise preventable deaths. And at Cook County, it was reported that there’s a lot of cases that reflect to the degree of Rikers where it’s rapidly moving, there’s dozens of people who are coming and testing back positive and then, in the news today, at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, in the same state, there is a prisoner death.
We’re starting to finally see, in the past week, that people behind bars are dying. These are otherwise preventable deaths and the health and safety standards behind bars of lack of access to testing and on top of the horrific conditions of not having access to soap, not being able to use hand sanitizer, not having cleaning products to keep their space cleanly really, really impacts public health for the worst and this information is not being clearly communicated to the general public. A lot of this information I’m getting is from people who are in touch with people behind bars or people behind bars directly. The administrations are not communicating the conditions of what is happening behind bars. Certain states are adapting and letting the public know which facilities have tested positives amongst the prisoner population or amongst staff but it’s a really detrimental situation where we have and it just further exposes the lack of transparency we have with prison administrations.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Just as a follow up of the federal government attorney general, Blair issued a request that prisoners be released from the federal prison system, which I’m not sure the numbers but closer to 200 thousand prisoners are held in federal jails and so on. But I understand that he made the stipulation that they use this algorithm called Pattern and it seems to be biased toward white collar criminals, which are primary white people. Have you looked at that and what’s your thoughts on that?

Adryan Corcione: Yeah. I think calls for decarceration needs to happen but we are running into this respectability politic within who gets to get released from prison. Lots of groups are calling for non-violent offenders to be released but this crisis does not impact just those who are labeled as non-violent offenders, it doesn’t just affect [inaudible 00:11:34] innocent people who are behind bars, it impacts everybody and it doesn’t matter what you’re charge or conviction was, people are still going to be impacted by this, people are going to lose loved ones and it, in terms of an algorithm and what we know about racist policing, in general, it’s unsurprising and unfortunate that we have these distinctions that are coming out but I think it’s still really important to stress that abolition for all and that all prisoners are deserving of a quality life and quality healthcare and public heath. These are calls for anyone who is a human and I think it’s important that people in the audience know that it doesn’t matter what your charge is, you are still impacted by this and anyone who knows anybody in the cercarial system will also be impacted and that it’s not a good precedent moving forward.

Eddie Conway: Kim, this whole thing with the release of prisoners in California or the federal government that’s focusing mainly on white collar criminals, California just focusing on criminals that has less than 60 days to do, what’s the situation on Rikers Island? And this seems to be a PR kind of sponsored reaction to the public outcry but is this impacting prisoners that’s really affected?

Kim Kelly: I’ve honestly been following this more closely from a personal perspective, keeping an eye on my friend, but there have been several hundred released. I think it came out yesterday that they’re up to 1900 that were eligible. It seems like it’s moving very quickly but also not quickly enough where politicians are saying one thing but what’s happening inside inside is very different. My friend was telling me a couple days ago about how … This was a little earlier on before the big wave had happened and when there’s a wave of several hundred people released in one week. [inaudible 00:14:02] saying there are people being told, “You’re going home,” and then they’re kept there for three days in these crowded dorms with no information. It seems like it’s very slap dash, the way things are being enacted and like Adrienne was saying, it does seem like there’s very much a emphasis on the non-violent, the good, prisoners, which is a whole other conversation, right? But as they’re saying, this virus does not care what you may have did or what you may have not did. It does not care what a judge decided to put you away for.
It affects everybody and what’s happening at Rikers, I just got an update as Adrienne was speaking that there are now 212 confirmed cases of incarcerated people with this virus on Rikers Island, which is a huge jump from just a few days ago. This is spreading and [inaudible 00:14:53] have this whole thing where they like to … It’s almost like playground antics, they like to jerk each other around, they like to see who has more power, who’s the big man, but these are peoples lives that we’re talking about and it came out a couple days ago that, I believe, the commissioner corrections … I’d have to find the exact title. There is somebody who has the power to unilaterally release as many people as are needed. All of these people have this power and they’re dragging their feet. We saw in Jersey, where I’m from as you can tell, a week or so ago, over 1000 people were released from local jails, which is the kind of action that needs to be taken. In Rikers, it’s spreading so fast and people are so afraid and there’s already so … Rikers is a hell hole when things are good, right? At this point, keeping anybody there longer than they need to, which is no one should be there for more than zero seconds.
It’s just putting people at risk and although political [inaudible 00:15:54], these people need to get their kids out of … I know what I mean. You know what I want to say. I don’t want to curse on your stream. They need to get their selves togethers and take decisive action because we’re running out of time.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Adrienne, it seems to me and, as I was pointing out, this seems like a PR kind of stunt, the California thing, even though it’s releasing 3500 people, it’s people that would have been released in a month or two anyway. The thing that’s happening in the federal government seems to be a white collar release. These things seem to be a PR thing. Are you getting the impression that they’re just trying to save face and they’re not really trying to save potentially at risk people in the prison systems?

Adryan Corcione: yeah, I can agree. It’s damage control, because even the information that we are getting from California’s Department of Correction is not cohesive. There’s a lot of questions even when we know that there are positive cases of COVID-19 behind bars in a facility, even if we know there are people, there’s a lot of questions that loved ones are going to have, how does this impact my loved one behind bars? Are people placed in pods? Are people in quarantine? What does it mean for … A lot of people can’t get in touch with people because it’s on lockdown. There’s no phone calls, there’s no video calls, and there’s definitely a lot of more press that I’m finding in the media analysis of people of mainstream press is more likely to report on something of COVID-19 behind bars. If a correctional officer has it, or if there’s a celebrity, right? There’s a lot of stunts that are happening to get people on the side of they’re doing everything they can but if they’re being honest with themselves, if the prisons were doing everything they could, they would not exist and there’s other trends that we can see too like in Marilyns, which now is reckoning with their first positive cases of those behind bars.
The Marilyn Department of Correction ordered all facilities to have free soap access to prisoners but when I spoke to my friend who is incarcerated at [inaudible 00:18:41] Bench Correctional Facility in Cumberland, Maryland, she has not had soap in months, which was the case before. A lot of these stunts, too, that, not just of releasing people, but ensuring people have access to clean facilities, it just becomes are the prison administrations a reliable credible source of information? And we see continually and time again and a lot of what Kim has said too, from interviewing people who are impacted, as prisoners, we can find that there is conflicting information.

Eddie Conway: This is a question for both, but, Kim, you start off, you can answer it first. But let me back up a minute. Marilyn, I have heard has over seven cases now and some cases among the guards there. It hasn’t been verified, they’re basically saying two prisoners, one guard, et cetera, but people from inside the prisons are reporting that there’s far more and that they’re not really being kept at a social distance because they’re eating in line and so on. But what should people outside do about this because as the days go on and the weeks go on, this could turn into a real serious epidemic in the prison system. It’s an already started but this could lead to a lot of people losing their lives. What can people outside do? Kim, you want to start off and then you can have the last word, Adrienne.

Kim Kelly: Sure. What people need to be doing right now, while they’re at home safe, is to be calling these politicians and expressing the need for them to release these people as soon as possible. Where, if you’re in New York, you need to be hitting up [inaudible 00:20:49], you need to be hitting up [inaudible 00:20:51], and there’s another person, while we were talking, I got her information sent to me, Cynthia Brand, who is the commissioner of the NYC Department of Corrections. She has the power to let these people go. We need to be calling, we need to be emailing, tweeting, doing everything you can to express and show to these politicians who are in this position of power, who hold power over peoples lives, that we’re watching. We expect them to do what needs to be done. Public pressure is huge right now. In addition to writing letters, to sending soap, to working with prison advocacy in prison, abolition groups, who are already in touch with people on the inside to find out what they need, how you can get it to them, just really doing everything you can to help people who are prevented from helping themselves despitened of the state deciding they don’t deserve to.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Adrienne, you want to follow up with that?

Adryan Corcione: Yeah. What Kim said was great. I think now is a really opportune time to pressure public officials because on the other side of this, whatever that will look like, the decarceration movement is not going anywhere, how can we apply pressure now and get the demands we want is really, really critical. And, two, writing to people behind bars, getting in touch with organizations like Swap Behind Bars and Black and Pink, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, those are some great organizations with local chapters that are doing the work to support people and I think, especially now that decarceration is becoming a reality in a lot of peoples lives, even amongst the people who may have already were going to be released at some point soon or just people who are completely unexpected getting home. I think it’s really important that [inaudible 00:22:49] are showing up for people for whether they’re families of loved ones behind bars or they’re people behind bars who are no longer in touch with family, who don’t have that resource network.
It’s really important that communities who are also calling for decarceration are also calling for adequate reentry because the connection between incarceration and homelessness is very clear. There’s lots of formally incarcerated people who don’t have the same networks as they once did. In Pennsylvania, most prisoners come from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia but the prisons aren’t located in those areas so when you’re out of prison, it’s like, okay, you’re out, and then you’re just on your own in a completely new place. I had a friend call me, a friend of a friend, that I knew from behind bars and she came home last week and it’s great that people are coming home but also what does reentry look like during COVID-19? My friend wanted to apply for a job at Walmart but she doesn’t know how to use the computer. She can’t go to a library to learn a computer class, I can’t physically go with her to a library and teach her how to use it myself. I think another step that we can all be proactive about is reentry and how communities are handling homelessness and reentry during this time.

Eddie Conway: Okay. We’re going to continue to follow this and keep an eye on what’s going on around the country, with your help of course. Kim and Adryan, thanks for joining me.

Kim Kelly: Thanks so much for having me.

Adryan Corcione: Thank you for having me, Eddie.

Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars for The Real News.


Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.