Rattling the Bars, hosted by former Black Panther and political prisoner Marshall “Eddie” Conway, puts the voices of the people most harmed by our system of mass incarceration at the center of our reporting on the fight to end it.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars for The Real News, I’m Eddie Conway, your host. We have been doing a lot of reporting on the COVID-19 impact on prisons across the country. The one thing that seems absent from most of the media outlets is what’s the situation with women in prison? Women with their babies in prison, women in minimum security, women in vulnerable positions. So, joining me today is two people that have been working with prisoners, women and men. And so, Tia Hamilton, which is the founder of a magazine, The State Versus Us, and joining me also is Serena Liguori. Can both of you all give me like an overview and an update on what’s happening with women in prison? Serena, you start, and Tia, you follow up.
Serena Liguori: Sure. Thank you so much, Eddie, for having me with you. My role as Executive Director at New Hour for Women and Children Long Island is really to go into the jails across Long Island and work with women while they’re incarcerated, and when they come home. Apart from that, I’m also somebody who served time when I was 19, and that experience changed my life in many profound ways. What I’ve realized over the years of doing this work is that women are completely forgotten, and the needs and issues that women and mothers have behind bars are almost never addressed.
Even when we hear about the some-44,000 people in New York state who are in prison, there’s about 1,600 women, and that’s a small number. Very easy to make sure we make an effort to meet their needs, release those who are able to be safely released, and to return the 13 mothers and babies in the Bedford Hills State Prison Home, especially during COVID. I think what we find is that to do anything less is truly irresponsible on the part of those of us who know better.
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Tia Hamilton: So, that’s a fact, Serena. Let’s just take… I’m in Baltimore, so let’s just take Maryland Prison for right now, before I move on to the other numbers that’s going on in the whole BOP and some states. In Maryland, there are over 217 coronavirus cases reported in the Maryland prison system. Now, when it comes to over 157 officers and 10 staff members are affected, come on. Because we are already in a controlled environment, when we talking about the prison system. They already can control the environment. So in order for them to get it, it has to be brought to them. That means staff has to bring it inside the prison. So, when you look at the fact that they don’t have no sensitivity to know that, okay, because they are incarcerated, they are human. Let’s try to fight for them, like they would fight for themselves or they family members, is sickening.
So, when we have over 50 incarcerated individuals, and I think 25 to 30 of those cases are coming from the Maryland prison system… And for the women, it’s heartbreaking, and no one’s doing anything. So, one of my supporters just sent me a message, saying that even in Hagerstown Prison in Maryland, the warden is claiming that they haven’t received any orders to release anyone from there, and supposedly over 2,000 incarcerated individuals have been released.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Can you… And both of you all can take a stab at this, also. Tia, you can start on this one… Can you tell me what gender specific risks are involved with women, and what women should be given priorities for getting released?
Tia Hamilton: Pregnancy. Pregnancy. Incarcerated women that are pregnant. And the sad truth is that with the incarcerated pregnant women in Jessup, Maryland… The only women’s facility in the state of Maryland is in Jessup. The pregnant women there are already on confinement, as if they did something wrong to get put on lockup. They are already on 23/1, coming out every other day. They are pregnant. Those women need to be released ASAP. Women that are 60 and over need to be released ASAP. Women that are one year to two years left to do on they time need to be released ASAP. Disabled women need to be released ASAP. Disabilities, sick and shut in women, need to be released ASAP. And this goes for the men, as well.
Serena Liguori: So Tia, to really echo what you are saying, what we’re hearing from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, what we’re hearing about how the treatment of women is taking place in the facilities, is that they are being put in 23, 22 hour lock in their cells, as a response to heading off the spread of COVID-19. What this is doing is it’s inducing serious mental health consequences. And what we realize is that many women who are pregnant people, who are older than 55, which by DOC standards is considered elderly, many medically fragile and vulnerable, are just not going to be able to receive healthcare.
This kind of breaks it down. For those of us who’ve been behind bars, you know. You have a toothache, and you get Pepto Bismol. I mean, the medical care in facilities is egregious at best in any time, and to say that now they’re going to prevent and treat and heal and make sure people recover from COVID-19? Most people behind bars feel if they contract COVID-19, they will die, and they may not be wrong about that estimation.
Eddie Conway: From your perspective, have any women been released, say in New York state, Maryland state? And if so, how many, and if not, who’s pushing to seek the release for those most vulnerable women? Serena, you want to start?
Serena Liguori: Sure. So, what we’ve done is we’ve created, along with WCJA, which is the Women’s Community Justice Association, along with New Hour and over 200 organizations… We’ve created a task force. That task force is the Justice for Women COVID-19 Task Force. We’ve sent an open letter to Governor Cuomo and to the acting commissioner for Corrections, Annucci, Anthony Annucci, and we’ve said, “What are you doing to make sure that folks, especially women, are released during this time?” To date, we have not heard of any women being released. Of that 1,619 or so women, we are not hearing about any releases because of COVID-19 and preventing the spread. This frankly speaks to the lack of empathy, and the overall just disregard of women behind bars.
I mean, certainly we know men are often disregarded as well, and are undervalued as humans. But women are completely left off the table. What we know is there are plenty of women who pose no safety risk if they were to come home now. I mean, you have mothers in a nursery with babies that they gave birth to in that prison. All 13 of them should be home with their babies right now. There is no reason that I can think of that that mother is not safe to be in the community with her baby, versus being in a prison that’s basically on lockdown.
Tia Hamilton: Serena, you are absolutely correct. When we talk about in the state of Maryland, we currently right now have a lady who’s been locked up, I want to say 42 years. Don’t quote me, but it’s been a long time. She is right now positive and in the hospital fighting for her life, right here in Maryland. She was housed at the Jessup Women’s Facility. And they don’t care. So, she’s in the hospital fighting for her life, and they still have her in handcuffs. They still have her confined. And the governor has not bust a move to release her, so she could get adequate and proper care. Because we all know, if you’re sitting in the hospital via the prison, you’re not going to get treated properly.
Her name is [Irina Pretty 00:09:08], and we are fighting for her right now. So, shout out to Monica Cooper, who’s with the Maryland Justice Program. She’s fighting. I’m fighting. I put together a list of demands. I did a demand letter that went out to… It hasn’t went out to all the prisons, as the goal. But so far, it has went to every prison in Chicago. I mean Illinois. It has went to every prison in Michigan, every prison in Iowa. We’re working on the rest of New York. We’re working on California. I have people all over this country with this letter, either emailing it or mailing it directly to every governor, lieutenant governor, every warden and assistant warden. We either mailing or emailing or both.
And this is what we have to do. The demand is to call. You could pick a prison in your state. It doesn’t even matter. Call and demand the release of incarcerated individuals. Our women, to get to they kids. Our men, to get to they children. We need this now. COVID-19 is in the prison and are killing them, and no one seems to care except for us advocates. The people in charge, they don’t give a darn. They don’t care. They moving along everyday life like everything is okay, when we have people who should not be affected at all, that are affected.
Eddie Conway: If either one of you all can address this. Look at what’s happening across the country. Say, like I’m aware in Louisiana, there’s a Gloria Williams. She’s 74 years old. She’s been incarcerated for 50 years. Now she’s done caught the virus. They’re not releasing her, I don’t believe. And so, do you have an awareness of other situations around the country, what’s happening to women, older women, women at risk, et cetera? Tia, you want to jump on that?
Tia Hamilton: Yes. We are not getting our people released fast enough. They claiming they releasing people, but we are not seeing the actual numbers. You know they done falsifying COVID-19 numbers, just like they are falsifying the number of incarcerated individuals that they have released. They are also falsifying the numbers that are actually in the prison.
I have a cousin that’s here in Maryland calling me, telling me that it’s bad. Because what I did was, everyone that I’m in contact with throughout the prison, whether it’s fed or state, I have them emailing me, calling me, writing me, doing whatever they have to do to let me know what’s going on. And our women are the most vulnerable. They are not being taken care of. Right now, from the BOP website, as of the 23rd of this month, there have been over 620 incarcerated people confirmed by lab test in coronavirus, out of 1,000… I’m sorry… Out of 153,467 currently incarcerated. 24 incarcerated people have died from the COVID, but that’s a fake number. All the numbers that they are giving are fake. They’re not even giving accurate numbers, whether it’s negative or positive.
So the fight continues, to push the envelope and to force them to make it right. Release our elderly women. Release our sick women. Release women who… If you a woman incarcerated, or a male, and you’ve got tuberculosis, that’s grounds for getting released. You are at risk. If you are pregnant, you’re not only putting yourself in harm, the baby’s at harm as well. And our leadership is not doing enough to put this in place to release men and women from these prisons.
And here, the governor is Larry Hogan. Now, he’s done a good job on certain things. But for some reason, we get to the prison piece with Larry Hogan, he just look like a deer in headlights. When it comes to passing laws that make sense, he veto them. When it comes to this situation, he’s not even addressing it like he should when he’s doing pressers. This is a big situation that need to be discussed, and it need to be discussed daily, hourly, every minute, until our men and women are released from out of these prisons.
Serena Liguori: Yes. And just to piggyback on what you’re saying, Tia, we are hearing the same thing in New York state. So, Governor Cuomo, when asked about how many people have contracted the virus, how many people are being tested, they are touting that they have low numbers of folks in prison who have contracted the virus. And what we know is true is most of the inmates are not getting tested. And so, we’ve got something like 28, 20… There was 29 women tested at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which has just under about 300 women. 24 of them came back positive. How is it that there aren’t more tests being administered? And what we’re hearing, from the phone calls and the letters we’re getting, is that there is a refusal of the medical staff to test anybody, because they don’t want to inflate their numbers to the truthful numbers of how many folks have contracted the illness.
The other piece is that for those who have died… I think there’s eight people now behind bars who have died of COVID-19 in New York state prisons. And what they’re doing is, for those who don’t have family to go back to, to take the remains back to, they have prisoners digging graves. And so, this is just… There are no words to describe what kind of trauma this is creating in the prisons. And the fact that they’re not being honest about how many people have the virus, and how many people have requested testing.
And so, docs… Governor Cuomo was asked, “Well, what are you doing to prevent the spread?” And they said, “Oh. Well, we’re not using isolated confinement. We’re very aware that we want to halt the use of solitary confinement in prisons.” And in fact, that’s exactly what they’re doing in the prisons right now, is putting everyone in 23, 22 hour lock. This is dire, and deadly for people who have mental health issues, and for anyone. We all know what it’s like to be living in isolation right now in our homes, and the struggle that is with every comfort you could imagine, in terms of food and your family, and phone calls and video calling. To be in a cell, and to be left there for days and days and days and months, and there’s no surety that after COVID-19 ends for our community and is controlled, that it will then end for the prisons. So, we may see a resurgence of the use of solitary as a consistent way of keeping the virus from spreading. So, more punishment and inhumane treatment.
Eddie Conway: So, what can people outside do, since there’s no visits allowed? I understand that petitions is one of the things. What else can they do, and what should people be doing, whether they have family, friends, or loved ones in prison? If they’re just concerned about stopping what could be a possible genocide epidemic here in America, what can people do? Do you want to start off, Serena?
Serena Liguori: Yes. This is absolutely the time to raise our voices, call our lawmakers, make phone calls to the governor’s office, write letters. Post on Facebook. You know, it sounds simple, but a lot of people are, and rightly so, applauding our first responders, our nurses and doctors. No one is talking about those who are languishing behind bars. And many of us, we know that the United States over-incarcerates, and the issue of mass incarceration is not going away. This is a perfect time to de-carcerate the prison system, and they are choosing not to do that, when it’s safe to do that. This is a time for us to call out our elected officials, and to make noise, and to write letters. Call the facility. Express concern to the superintendents there. Let everyone know that the people behind bars, the 44,000 men and women, are not forgotten, and that this is intolerable. It is egregious, and it’s got to end. It’s got to stop. We’ve got to make sure that people come home, and are in an environment where they are not going to die from contracting COVID-19.
Tia Hamilton: Well, people can first take a prison, a jail, whether it’s state or fed. Call that prison daily. It doesn’t have to be someone you know that’s locked up, for you to feel human about what’s happening in today’s society. We have to, as a community, come together to de-carcerate our people. We are a community. We are not even the largest population, but we the largest prison population, and black people are affected more.
We have to stop playing. We need to get on the phones with these wardens, with these system wardens. We need to get on the phone with sergeants at these prisons. We need to get on the phone with governors, lieutenant governors, officers. We need to also find out who’s in charge of the Division of Corrections in that state and city. That’s what we need to do. That’s how you fight this against them. We have to hold them accountable, all of these elected officials. We have to get on the phone, and we have to call. Call, call every day. You want the list of demands, and you want to see how it starts off, then visit my website at statevsusmag.com. Sign the petition. And in that petition, just don’t sign it. Read it first. Sign it. Read it, sign it, and then you’ll see the list of demands, and how to go about. What you need to say to contact these prisons that you choose to contact.
Here in Maryland, we are going to have a rally May the 1st at 2:00 P.M., out in Jessup, Maryland, where we are going to force the hands of these leaders, these corrections, Division of Corrections, and the governor, to release our men and women from the prison. So, meet us in Jessup. It’s a whole strip of prisons. If you familiar with Maryland and Jessup, you know there’s a whole bunch of prisons. If you want that information on where to start and the map, email me at email@example.com, and I will be more than happy to send you the information you need to meet us there, and to fight COVID-19 together, to get the release of our men and women out of there.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you Tia, Serena, for joining me for this episode.
Tia Hamilton: Absolutely, and I thank you for having me.
Eddie Conway: All right. So, yeah. You can forward that information. And just a word of caution. Remember social distancing. Wear your masks. Make sure you all protect you all self. You’re trying to save lives. Don’t lose any. Okay?
Tia Hamilton: Absolutely.
Serena Liguori: Yes. And Eddie, if I could just add one more point?
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Serena Liguori: We had a rally outside of the Nassau jail last week, and what we’re hearing even from officers is that they are afraid that they haven’t received enough PPE to keep from the spread. And so, what we’re realizing is this is not about inmates versus officers. We’re all in this together. And the prison system is an integral part of our community, because we know 80 to 90% of folks come home. And so, next Wednesday we also are going to be participating in a presser to end the use of solitary confinement. Now more than ever, with bail reform, there’s more space in the facilities, and they’re not using the space. They’re choosing to put people in cells, when they don’t need to do that in terms of creating a prevention of the spread.
Eddie Conway: Thanks for joining this episode of Rattling Bars for The Real News.
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 andThe 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.