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The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice—whose mission is to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system—reports that the rate of COVID cases in federal and state prisons is more than four times the national rate. Eddie Conway talks to Jose Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison, about the public health threat, why prisons and jails are hotbeds of contagion, and how punitive measures for infected prisoners are making everything worse.


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

Eddie Conway: The Washington Post reported recently that the number of cases of COVID-19 in the prison system across the nation is four times higher than the national average. I recently spoke to Jose Saldana from RAPP about this.

All right, so Jose, the ACLU has filed over 50 suits on behalf of prisoners and people held in ICE detention in relationship to this COVID-19. They have very little success in litigating these things because of the Prison Reform Act of 1995, I believe it is. Jose, can you talk a little bit about how difficult it is for prisoners to get relief and in this case, where their lives in jeopardy? What’s the situation there?

Jose Saldana: Yes. You know, the authors of this act, this federal act that drastically restricted the use of federal habeas corpus by state incarcerated people at the time, these very same legislators referred to our youth as super predators. So this was the mindset. So by having that perception of human beings, calling them super predators, it kind of gives you that they really didn’t give a damn about those who were incarcerated. So when they enacted this law, they restricted the federal access to the federal habeas corpus so drastically that men and women actually lost the right to go to federal court to challenge the constitutionality of their state convictions and even attorneys had a difficult time meeting those time restrictions.

Eddie Conway: Well, since they’re not given relief, at least it don’t appear to be so in the court system, what is the situation in terms of the high amount of cases in the prison systems? It’s the epicenter of the pandemic now in America. How is that going to affect the general public?

Jose Saldana: Well, the general public in prisons, as you know, we can not socially distance in a prison environment. It’s just impossible. And to make matters worse, they are actually depriving incarcerated men and women of preventive measures, PPEs. And in addition to that, when they appear or request to go to sick call to address the illness, when a person is feeling ill, he has that right to go to sick call. They make it difficult. I know in New York state and I’m in contact with literally hundreds of people throughout the state, maybe thousands. In fact, over a thousand people because we send a newsletter out every month. And we’ve been getting information throughout the last eight, nine months that incarcerated people, rather than go to sick call and report that they have symptoms of COVID-19, because they will just be sent right back to their cell. Or if the symptoms are severe, they will be placed in isolation with no property whatsoever. So this is punitive. This is how the Department of Corrections in New York state, they responded to COVID-19 spread in their prisons with punitive measures. They didn’t do it as a health crisis because they didn’t respond to it as a health crisis. So men actually rather just rough it out in their cell and risk death than to be punished for being ill.

Eddie Conway: Mm Hmm. Okay. Now experts, public health experts, are suggesting that one of the main factors of this increasing spread among prisoners, and I think it’s like four times the national average is the no social distancing, the use of dormitories, and they are advocating that dormitories be shut down, that prison populations be cut in half. Are you aware of any states that’s moving toward that or what’s the situation in New York now in terms of shutting the dormitories down, getting PPE, practicing safe distances? What’s the status in New York?

Jose Saldana: In New York, first, the response, the initial response was to suspend all visits. That means that incarcerated people will not be receiving any visits for the duration. They opened it back up after several months, but that was their first response, a response that is punitive in nature because in suspending all visits, the virus spread in prisons across New York space is spread because correctional staff was bringing it in here. They suspend visits, but they do not require their employees to wear masks. They do not test their employees. So the suspending visits didn’t accomplish anything.

They are not considering, the governor who has the power, unrestrained authority to grant clemencies to the elderly people who languishing in prisons or to those who have underlying health conditions, no matter whether they are in a dormitory setting or in a cell setting, the conditions are basically the same. Even if you limit the numbers in a dormitory, you still have men and women living in an environment where they can not successfully social distance and they are not being provided the every day PPE that is necessary to at least slowed down this virus. Instead, what they are doing is they’re actually the neglecting the very same preventive measures that all public health experts say should be enforced. They are actually not giving out PPE on a regular basis. They think one mask is supposed to last an entire month. It loses its value after a couple of days.

Eddie Conway: Hmm. Which brings me to another question of serving food in the dining room, preparing food, cleaning the tiers. Prisoners apparently has no way of knowing who’s been infected or who hasn’t been infected because like you say, a lot of people don’t even go to sick call because they fear the punitive measures of being punished or being put in an environment where they would be at risk. So prisoners have no way of knowing who inside the system is impacted. So, I mean, how is that affecting the spread and the psychological conditions of prisoners?

Jose Saldana: Just recently in an upstate prison, you have quite a few upstate prisons now that there’s been a real surge in the COVID-19 positives. You have a prison with nearly 500 men have tested positive. If you have 500 men that test positive in a facility that houses 12 or 1300 men, you would figure that you must test the rest, but they don’t. They are not transparent in their testing because the information we are getting from incarcerated people is that they are not testing people. And yet on their website, the Department of Corrections states that they have started the program of testing everybody in New York state correctional facilities when in fact they have not done that. They probably have tested less than 15,000 out of close to 40,000 men and women that are languishing in New York state prisons. And in that testing, we don’t know who has it, who doesn’t have it and as long as people are walking around with this virus, it is spreading.

Eddie Conway: Well, and I’ll go back to that Washington Post article that says that in the prison populations, the spread of COVID-19 is four times that of the national average. And I look at the transfer of prisoners that’s been tested positive into prisons with no positive cases like San Quentin and in Ohio and other places. And I wonder, or I’m going to ask you, this is like the concentration camps to me. It reminds me of the German concentration camp experiments. Are prisons being used right now to see how this will spread, if it’s not checked or if people are thrown together or some sick, some not sick? What’s your take on this? I mean, it’s too deliberate. Everybody knows prisoners are there, they can’t do anything. So are they being used now or what?

Jose Saldana: Well, it would appear that this lack of concern for human lives is with calculation. Just look at what the governor did when he took 125 elderly people, 65 and over all with health conditions, every single one of them and he transferred them from a facility that is a hotbed for the COVID and then transferred all of them to a new facility. They did not test them. They did not test a single one. So you have older people coming from a hotbed of COVID facility with other older people being transferred there from other facilities, all coming together and not a single test, leaving the facility or arriving in the new facility. So, you would think that anybody would say, these men, these older men are coming from a facility that has the highest infective rate. You would think that it’s just common sense to test them, but when they don’t test them, they are just inviting catastrophic consequences, like the nursing homes. And this is why we protest against this. And we said that instead of putting them in a prison nursing home, where if one person had the disease, we can have multiple people dying of this disease, especially the elder people. Instead of inviting that, we ask that you grant them clemency because most of them have already languished in prison for decades. They pose no risk to public safety.

Eddie Conway: So, and this is off the beaten path, probably, prisoners can’t file and get relief. The stories in the papers, the public attitude about what’s happening in prisons is falling on deaf ears. Is there something people outside in the communities can do about this, because the way I see it, if nothing happens and we’re looking at a spike of cases all across America now, and if prisons are spiking four times that level, then I’m looking at a national disaster in the prison system that’s going to automatically come out to the community eventually. It’s going to spread throughout society. Is there something people outside can do about this to maybe bring it to the attention or get some kind of relief?

Jose Saldana: Yes. I believe that there’s a lot our communities can do. And as you know, COVID-19 disproportionately impacts black and Latinos people or communities. And the people in prison are black and Latinos from poor communities. So our families are very concerned with those who are incarcerated, but society as a whole don’t seem to be too concerned. And it’s on us. It’s on us to start making a lot of noise about this, because these are our loved ones in prison, who they are placing in a concentration type nursing home that, if this thing hits with the force that it is capable of hitting, we will have a lot of men and women dying in prisons across the country. So our communities has to stand up for the humanity of their incarcerated loved ones.

We have to set our differences aside and demand our elected officials, especially our elected officials representing our communities, that they do something about this, that they enact legislation that will release these men and women, because the thing, there are some release mechanisms that can decarcerate prisons, and take away that a hundred percent threat, lower it, lower the infection rate, and one of these things is, start paroling these men and women. Men and women who within two years of their parole, they expedite they parole date so that they can be released by the parole and demand the governor to use his executive authority to grant compassion to people who are the most vulnerable to this disease and there was no risk involved because these men and women are my age, who are the least likely not only to commit another crime, but they will in fact do exactly what I’m doing and enhance public safety, because this is what we do once we are released from prison.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Jose, I’m sorry. We have to keep coming back and we’re probably going to have to come back and revisit this again in the very near future, but thanks for sharing that information.

Jose Saldana: Thank you.

Eddie Conway: Thanks for joining me. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Ericka Blount
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino

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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.