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Journalist Kim Kelly has been in contact with a prisoner inside Rikers Island. She talks with TRNN’s Eddie Conway about why immediate further action is needed to protect people from COVID-19.

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

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. This is a special update of Rattling the Bars. Recently we have been looking at the coronavirus scare and pandemic across the world and we have a special interest and concern about how this is going to impact the two plus million people in the prisons and jails across America. We know that 75% of [inaudible 00:00:43] people of color, and we know that if the virus gets inside a jail, it’s going to probably be really bad in there because prisoners can’t have social distance.
They’re in cells, the cells are side by side, in some cases they’re in large dormitories and is sleeping in a double bunks, and so they are within hands [inaudible 00:01:13] of almost all the time, even when they go eating or go to eat. Rikers Island has reported a case and I believe it’s over a dozen cases in Rikers Island now and that’s a concern. Rikers Island has at any given day, 10,000 prisoners locked up on that Island.
It also has 9,000 guards that maintain those prisoners on the Island and it has also 1,500 civilian employees that come in, whether they do teaching in or electrical work or plumbing or whatever. Totally, there’s 20 some 1000 people on that island and now this COVID-19 has been reported among the prison population. So today to give us an update and an overview of what’s happening I’m talking to Kim Kelly, which is a freelance journalist that does activist journalism on the ground or from Philadelphia and she had recently spoken to someone in the prison itself. So Kim, thanks for joining me.

Kim Kelly: Thank you so much for having me and for having these really important updates.

Eddie Conway: Give us an overview of what you’ve learned so far in your communications with the prisoner.

Kim Kelly: Right. I got a phone call from a friend of mine who’s been in custody in Rikers for the past few months, and I’ve been trying to get in touch with them for the past few days because I got word over the weekend that two dorms worth of people, about 48 people in the Robert N. Davoren Center were basically going on a small scale strike. They’re refusing to leave to go to their work details and they’re refusing to go to the mess hall in protest of the conditions within that Island, which are deteriorating just rapidly.
They’re already bad, but now they’re getting so much worse. The people who are imprisoned on this Island there, they barely have basic supplies. They had to go on this strike in order to get masks, to get some cleaning supplies. There’s still no hand sanitizer, there’s no bleach. People are sick. There are people, I think there are about 39 reported cases now on the Island and there are also about 82 people who are being held in quarantine in the West Facility’s Infectious Disease Center. They’re overflowing. They’re completely unprepared to deal with this.
As he said, he told me, “We already know that the DOC doesn’t care about us, but at this point it just feels like they’re being negligent and they’re overwhelmed and they’re completely unprepared to handle this.” He told me in a case of an elderly gentleman who spoke Chinese, who went down about five days ago, an elderly gentleman who was showing symptoms and he went to the clinic and he was accompanied by a Chinese American man who could serve as an interpreter, and they were kept in a holding cell for eight hours together with however many other people who were sick showing symptoms.
And then eventually the older man was taken into quarantine and the younger men would just sent back into gen pop. My friend was telling me how COs are walking around without masks, without taking basic precautions. They’re putting up these posters throughout the dorms saying, “Stay six feet away from each other. Social distancing.” You cannot social distance when you are sleeping in a dorm full of people two feet away with two feet between beds. It’s almost laughable if it wasn’t so serious and so dangerous.
Like these people are essentially trapped in a Petri dish and it’s in de Blasio and Cuomo, they have the power to release so many more people than they have. They have the moral obligation to release so many more people than they have, and they haven’t and the clock is ticking. People are sick. We have not had a death amongst the incarcerated population on Rikers yet, but who knows how far away we are from that, like it’s coming.
I don’t think people who aren’t paying attention to the plight of people who are incarcerated perhaps realize just how desperate things are. Like people in these prisons are going on strike just for some cleaning wipes, just for a mask. There are people who … My friend also told me the instance a few days ago in which 15 people were moved into his dorm and they found out that some of them had been exhibiting … Had been held in a different facility where they were tested for the virus and then the DOC moved them into a different dorm without waiting for the test results. And then it came out afterwards that the results were positive.
So there is just so much cross-contamination. There is so much spread happening and it’s really just a dire situation for everyone inside and also for people outside because you know there are thousands of people who work on the Island who get to leave. There are people incarcerated there who are allowed to leave, who are released and they’re just going out into the general population, which they deserve to be free. But the health … It’s a public health crisis waiting to happen in the midst of a pandemic and keeping people locked up like this in these crowded cells, dirty conditions, it’s just a crime. It’s a crime against humanity, is what it is.

Eddie Conway: Of the people being held at Rikers Island right now, like over 8,000 people are being held as pretrial custody, so they haven’t been convicted of anything or sentenced to any kind of time. The other 15% is doing a term, but at least 8,500 of those people that’s trapped on that Island right now hasn’t been convicted of anything or being held or in some cases without bail, but in other cases because they just couldn’t afford to make bail.
This seems to be something that the governor, not the governor, the mayor, because this is a New York City jail, so Mayor de Blasio has the power and the ability to release the aging, the infirmed, people with respiratory problems, et cetera. He has that power now at least at the very least, among the 8,500. What’s being done to bring pressure to bear on him about this, because it’s a decision that him and his state’s attorney can make.

Kim Kelly: Right. There has been thankfully a lot of reporting about the issue, especially because New York media is primed to cover everything that’s happening within the city’s borders and Rikers. The virus coming to Rikers is a huge story, it’s a huge risk. So there has been a lot of public pressure in that way and de Blasio has committed … I think he’s released 75 people so far, which is a drop in the bucket. I know that today they’re supposedly going to be releasing another 200, and then supposedly on Wednesday another 100 to 200 people potentially will be released as per the board of the New York City Board of Corrections’ recommendations.
This board has been pushing for them to let out as many people as possible because of the health risk. And I know that people, abolitionists and activists and friends and family of people who were inside had been pushing and having … And others have phone zap today being held by some radical organizers in New York to call in and to demand that these people be let free. There’s a lot of public pressure that is, is this possible to put pressure on these public officials? Especially because in the midst of this pandemic, they are trying to seem like the good guys, they’re trying to seem like they have things under control, but what they don’t have under control is the fact that there is a ticking time bomb in the middle of one of the most vulnerable populations in the city.

Eddie Conway: Okay. And I heard you say that they are striking for simple things like hand sanitizers, face masks, et cetera. Is there any, and I understand this is the city’s responsibility, the government’s responsibility, but is there any grassroots effort on the ground to get those kind of things and maybe ship them into the inmate, the prison population? Because it doesn’t seem to be something that we can wait on if there’s almost 40 cases inside that prison already.

Kim Kelly: Right. I know there’ve been efforts already to send people inside soap because it’s such a ridiculous state of affairs that so many people don’t even have soap because they had to buy it from commissary. And the problem with hand sanitizers is that for them to be … It has to be like 60% for it to be effective. That’s regarded as contraband within these dorms. So they’re not allowed to have it, despite the fact that people who are in these prisons are apparently being forced to manufacture hand sanitizer for other people.
So I think what the most effective thing to do right now besides keeping in touch with your loved ones, besides sending them letters, because they’ve suspended physical visits and video conferencing appears to not be available right now, is to just put pressure on these public officials to close … I mean, we all want Rikers to be closed down for good, but for now we need to get these people out of there and these public officials need to know that the people want this. They need to know that they can’t [inaudible 00:11:29] behind whatever cowardly motives they may have, political capital, whatever. Like the time to act is now. And the more people who are calling their offices and telling them that, the better.

Eddie Conway: Kim Kelly, thank you for joining me with that update and we’ll get back to you later on to continue to get updates around that situation.

Kim Kelly: Yeah. Thank you so much. [inaudible 00:11:51].

Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining me at the Real News.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
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.