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Eddie Conway talks to ACLU Maryland attorney Sonia Kumar, Never Again Action organizer Hallie Berkson-Gold, and ICE Free New Jersey activist Jorge Torres.

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

Eddie Conway: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Thanks for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars. There’s been a lot of attention on the Coronavirus and a lot of attention on the economy, suggestions that everybody shelter in place. It’s sweeping across the country. There’s been little or no attention on something that could prove to be a humanitarian disaster. That is the 2.3 million people held in prisons and jails across America. It’s clear that they are just very in most cases, feets apart in dormitory situations. They might be as close as two feet and it might be 100 or 200 people held in those dormitories. If the virus gets out in the prison systems, it’s going to impact a lot of people, probably a good proportion of prisoners now in America because of the craziness of the lengthy sentences.
Senior citizens, they have respiratory and other immune compromising diseases, so this would definitely be devastating and it would be close, and this is just my opinion as one person that’s been in prison for a number of decades, it would be close to the genocide that was practiced in Germany against the Jewish population and other populations of color and so on.
It’s clear that 75% of the prison population in the United States of America are people of color. There’s been calls across the country about the release of some of these aging and elderly and perhaps infirmed prisoners. Join me today to talk about debt and to talk about the conditions in the ICE facilities. Also a number of people, first Sonia Kumar is from the ACLU, and she’s going to talk about what’s happening in Maryland. And [Holly Go 00:03:00] is from Never Again Action, and Jorge Torres is from ICE Free New Jersey. Thank you, Sonia, Holly, Jorge for joining me. I’d like to start with a Sonia. Tell me about the letter that the ACLU have written to the governor and what’s in it and what do you expect?

Sonia Kumar : Thank you, Eddie for raising this important issue. As everyone knows, public officials around the country soon after we learned of the virus, began taking steps to educate all of us about what we need to do to keep us all safe and to minimize the spread of the virus. One of the places, as you noted and you’re aware there has been a sort of deafening silence is in relation to our prisons and jails. For example, in the beginning of March, Governor Hogan in Maryland began issuing executive orders and making various statements about what Marylanders needed to do. As of this date, there has been no public action relating to our prisons and jails or our criminal legal system generally or public guidance even other than an announcement on March 12th that they were going to suspend visits in the prisons indefinitely or for two weeks, I believe at that time.
Last week, the ACLU coordinated, but it was, we did a letter on behalf of a number of more than a dozen organizations. I think at this point we have more than 300 signatories urging the governor to treat this crisis with the same attention that we’ve seen in other contexts like in the business context for example. And what we were urging the governor to do is to first reject baseless claims that have been circulating that somehow people could be safer in our prisons and jails than in the community. That was number one. We’re hearing that there are prosecutors making those claims. The governor himself repeated that claim at a press conference. And then second, we urged him to take swift steps to make clear to all of the stakeholders of the criminal legal system that the status quo can’t be allowed to continue.
And so there were three primary areas of focus. One was doing everything possible to limit new admissions to our prisons and jails, and that involves coordinating among law enforcement as well as prosecutors and judges. A second was looking for ways to expedite the release of people who can safely return to our communities from our prisons and jails. As you know, we have tens of thousands of people in Maryland who are incarcerated in our prisons and jails, many of whom could safely return as well as many of whom are elderly, many of whom who have medical issues. And it’s important that we decrease the density, the population density in our prisons and jails as quickly as possible.
Then finally, for those who remain in the prisons and jails, we urged the governor to take swift steps to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to maintain their safety in terms of identifying people who are most vulnerable to serious risk of harm if they are, if they contract the virus, as well as really doing everything possible to empower people inside, to take steps to protect themselves and to help in managing this crisis.

Eddie Conway: Okay, let’s look at New Jersey for a minute. Jorge, the ICE Free New Jersey has organized an action outside of the detention center. You want to bring us up to date on what happened and what’s happening?

Jorge Torres: The invitation to this, do your show. What’s going on is a couple of days ago we had hear from a lot of the inmates inside that they were very worried about how people that was the detained at the border was transferring to the detention centers and also people that was detaining in New York City, what is the epicenter of this pandemic, has been transferred to Essex and Hudson County Detention Center as well. It was a very … We were very concerned about inmates. We work closely with First Friends, which is an organization that do a lot of jail visits. And then what we’ve been hearing was that in Hudson County Detention Center, they couldn’t even have soap. They were not getting sanitizers or anything like that to this disinfect themselves or to or even to prevent this pandemic to be spread in a month to other inmates as well.
We were very worried about these cases, and then we just decided that it was important to inmates to start getting together and to start organizing. They put together a hunger strike in the Essex Detention Center. Then [inaudible 00:08:48] Never Again and ICE Free New Jersey organized the first rally outside of the Essex Detention Center. And then on Sunday we got contacted from some other groups as well, and then we organized together with other organizations outside of the rally in the cars outside of the Hudson Detention Center just to support. That it was another hunger strike that the inmates to start. And now it’s another one in the [inaudible 00:09:20] Detention Center too. The inhumane part of it is that everything is close. And now the detention center, I mean we’re demanding that Governor Murphy should use his executive power to close the detention centers and to release inmates from the ICE detention centers.

Eddie Conway: Holly, you joined in this action. Tell me a little bit about why your group came out and what you expect to happen as a result of this.

Holly: It was super important to support this action and really put capacity into this action because any detention center is at serious risk for everybody inside getting Coronavirus, and it’s only a matter of time before these detention centers become death camps with everybody trapped inside because of course you can’t socially distance inside a prison. It’s not possible. And so yeah, it was usually important for Never Again to demand the release of everybody in detention at this moment. And one of the things that we had then encouraging our public to do as well and taking a lot of different distributed actions across the country and all different detention centers across the country.
We reminded people too that like people like Anne Frank, victims of the Holocaust, she didn’t actually die in a gas chamber. She died of typhus, which was a disease caught in a concentration camp. And so we wanted to remind our greater public of that and encourage them to realize that this is an issue that they should care about too. Yeah, it’s been super important for us to really bring in what we could and turn out as many cars as possible in order to make the actions effective and makes sure that everybody can get released now, yesterday, as soon as possible.

Eddie Conway: Jorge, there was an announcement yesterday that a 1,000 prisoners in New Jersey was going to be released, but I didn’t get the impression that it had anything to do with the ICE detention centers. Are you following that? Can you give us some insight on who those prisoners were and how that relates to your action on the ground?

Jorge Torres: I mean, I think what the administration and yes, I mean they are going to be released. They’re going to release 1,000 inmates, but it’s more for the side of the criminal justice side of it and it’s people that has been sick, people that has been very high … pretend to get the virus. It’s 1,000 inmates. I think it’s the right thing to do. I think in this time it is … It is also a lot of people from … people that has been detained from ICE. It is no one that is moving no fingers to release them. It is a lot of people sick inside as well that could get the virus. We definitely wanted to keep pushing for that.

Eddie Conway: Sonia, I see that the ACLU was part of that campaign to get those prisoners released in New Jersey. Is this something that ACLU is trying to do across the country? Can you talk a little bit about that? Are you aware of it?

Sonia Kumar : Yes. I think as all of us are saying, there’s a recognition that in this time of crisis, we have to do everything possible to get as many people out of harm’s way as we can. Every state of course is different, but we share these common concerns. And so there is I think very much a movement of which they solely was part to try every strategy possible to get people out. And so I think one of the … The ACLU in New Jersey along with my understanding is their public defender’s office did a lot of work to help elevate the issues in the courts to get to the decision makers who actually had the authority to let people out.
The governor of Wisconsin recently ordered that state’s prison system to limit prison admissions to the degree possible. There are a huge number I think of local actions also happening. We’ve been talking about the state level but also local actions happening in terms of local corrections officials, local prosecutors to try to stem the tide. Right here in Maryland, the state’s attorney of Baltimore City and the state’s attorney of Prince George’s County have really helped elevate those concerns as well.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Has there been any prisoners released in Maryland, and if not, what action does the public need to take to help facilitate that?

Sonia Kumar : In Maryland, our understanding is that there’ve been people who have been, who have avoided pre-trial detention as a result of the attempts to mitigate harm by new admissions to the jails. But we’re not aware of anyone who’s been released from the DOC as a result of the virus. I think number one is making clear as members of the public that we recognize that this is a crisis. It’s a matter of when, not if, and that we really care about … we see the connection between what happens in our prisons and jails and what is happening in the outside world. And so I think number one is making sure that the governor feels that sense of urgency and appreciates that that is something that folks care about. And I think in the same way, just continuing to do the education and the various kinds of actions that we can all take in our respective capacities.

Eddie Conway: Okay. I want to just narrow this down. Is there a legal action that can be taken because there seems to be a liberty interests in terms of someone goes into prison, they received 10 years. They are in there during this pandemic, they lose their life. Is there a liberty interest, a legal action that can be taken on behalf of at least prisoners that are at risk, over 60, et cetera, et cetera? Is there anything that can be done legally?

Sonia Kumar : I think that’s a question we’re all trying to answer. I think as you know, courts have traditionally been very hostile to efforts to address the crisis in prisons and jails before the pandemic, including releasing people from those cruel conditions. That is certainly something that I think lawyers and advocates across the country are exploring. I think every system is going to be a little bit different in terms of what is possible. That’s the most I can say right now.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Holly, since it’s clear that the hunger strikes are growing in New Jersey, it’s also clear that there’s a case, not a case, but a dozen cases or more in Rikers Island, and that’s probably going to increase as days go by. What can people on the ground do besides, I mean the protest is good, the motorcades, that kind of stuff. What else needs to happen, Holly?

Holly: Honestly, I think in this period of time, we’re just seeing the beginning of some different creative action tactics that are COVID-safe. I think continued, sustained, targeted action will continue hopefully to move people in time. I know one thing, there’s a Never Again group in New York City, and they’re in the process of planning particular targeted actions. I’m not honestly clear on what. I think they’re working on deciding what their tactics are going to be.
But there have been other actions in light of COVID that are COVID-safe, but that have been things like projection. In New York City, there was a projection on the immigration court house demanding that people be released, both in immigration detention and in places like Rikers. Yeah, I think honestly a lot of people because we’re in the middle of going through this, we’re just seeing the beginnings of different possible tactics that people can use that are less harmful than marching together close by, which is not something we are unfortunately able to do as much with the Coronavirus spreading so quickly.
But yeah, the long and short of it is that lots of people on the ground in lots of different places including new Jersey and New York City, there were actions in California too, targeting their governor as well. People are coming up with all different types of ways to do targeted direct action in a different way than they had before. A whole diversity of tactics.

Eddie Conway: Jorge.

Jorge Torres: Can I …

Eddie Conway: You get the final question. And the question is, from where you sit, what do you think people can do that can be safe but most helpful to put pressure and bring attention to the conditions in these detention centers and prisoners in the jails?

Jorge Torres: I think that it’s about time to get unified. I think it’s about time for the criminal justice advocacies and also the immigration and ICE attention, abolishing advocacies to get together. This is not about if you are detainee in ICE or you are the detainee on the criminal justice system. I feel that this is about being a human being. This is about putting profit over families and people, they are just get angrier and angrier and angrier. I know and I believe that this will be escalating and it will be escalation on actions if we don’t get what is to be right to do as a moral and humanity way to do it.
I feel that this is about saving lives. This is not about just saving people that [inaudible 00:22:31] and one side of it is another side. I think it’s about being a human and also, we totally believe that this Coronavirus is just about getting to reach people and people of color, put ourselves in one side of another side. This is not about your color, the color of your skin. This is about being human and doing the correct things to do. Then, I mean what other peoples can do is, I mean join all those actions. There is always a risk, but if we talk about risk, undocumented people, there’s always being a risk. People that is in detention centers, people of color being at risk.
There’s risks of being in your car and then just go and beep outside of the detention center. It’s not too much. I feel like it is time to get together. I think it’s time to send a correct message, and it’s time for people that does policy, for people that do direct actions, I think it’s about to send them a collective message that we could to achieve this goal, which is something that is just humane and stop putting profit over families.

Eddie Conway: Thank you for joining me, Sonia, Holly, Jorge.

Sonia Kumar : Thank you.

Holly: Thank you for having us. Thank you very much.

Jorge Torres: Thanks for the attention and let’s keep doing this kind of progress.

Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. And we will, and thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars for The Real News.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount

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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.