COVID Crossroads For Prison Abolitionists

The intersection of a pandemic and a public uprising to address police brutality has created a unique moment in history—and a distinct moment for prison abolitionists.

Two arguments now entering the mainstream—that incarceration is an urgent public health crisis and that policing takes needed resources from communities—have long been argued by abolitionist organizers.

“Abolition is about fighting the prison industrial complex as a whole, because these violent systems are interlocking and feed off each other,” explained Mohamed Shehk, national media and communications director for the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance.


JUNETEENTH 2020: An Extraordinary Moment

The next election should focus on creating a framework to allow people calling for the abolition of modern prisons to begin the hard work of creating new institutions.

Americans need to vote to help activists continue anti-racist work that will allow us to envision the possibility of a society that is free of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia.

I don’t know whether it would have unfolded as it did if not for the terrible COVID-19 pandemic, which gave us the opportunity to collectively witness one of the most brutal examples of state violence.

This is an extraordinary moment which has brought together a whole number of issues.



A cacophony of car horns, drums, cowbells and trombones echoed along the strip of grass just beyond the coiled razor wire glistening in the sunlight.

A few onlookers peered from turret-like openings on the other side of the wire-topped wall to see what all the noise was all about.

“We love you!” the protesters yelled.

For the Chicago Police and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department there was only scorn, as about 150 protesters on foot — as well as hundreds more in cars — demanded the defunding of the Cook County Jail.

“We have pumped more and more money into mass incarceration and our communities are no safer. So anyone who believes this is actually working, I would question their reasoning.”

The protesters outside Cook County Jail, at 2700 South California Avenue, said money taken from the facility would be put to better use if it funded housing for the poor, mental health services and other social service needs.



John Catanzara, the new president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police criticized officers who kneel.

He said now is not the time or place to be kneeling with protestors, and said officers would be risking being brought up on charges and thrown out of the lodge.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called his comments really unfortunate.



Gray wisps of smoke emanating from dark concrete. That’s what I remember from the sliver of video of the police killing of 16-year-old Laquan McDonald.

I couldn’t watch the actual shooting—my familiarity with Black death wouldn’t allow it. But I opened my eyes just as those thin wisps began to dissipate in the cool of the night air;  wisps from gunshots—16 of them—emptied into the body of a youth failed by almost all of our societal systems.

He lost his life at the hands of a state-sanctioned actor who couldn’t care less.

Defund The Police.

I get why the phrase elicits such visceral reactions and pearl-clutching in certain corners. “What do you mean, defund?” some people say. “Isn’t reform a better way of phrasing it?” Reform is a perfectly warm, comforting blanket. It is comfortable and sedating.

But it also smothers.



Across the world, the impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic has increased with each passing day.

The highly contagious respiratory illness has been deadly for many, especially the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Across the United States, elected officials are taking unprecedented steps to protect the most vulnerable people in their communities and contain the spread of the virus.

People incarcerated in jail are one of the most vulnerable populations, and their protection warrants special emergency action.

Jails and prisons are known to quickly spread contagious diseases. Incarcerated people have an inherently limited ability to fight the spread of infectious disease since they are confined in close quarters and unable to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed.

Responses such as lock downs, placing people in solitary confinement and limiting access to visits from loved ones are punitive and ineffective responses to outbreaks. Importantly, we know that isolation further endangers people and limiting visitation also has adverse effects.

The only acceptable response to the threat of COVID-19 is decarceration.

Today there are more than 5,500 people incarcerated in Cook County Jail (CCJ). Almost all of them are still awaiting trial and thus presumed innocent under the law.

Their ongoing incarceration is an unacceptable risk to every incarcerated individual as well as public health.



In collaboration with the Chicago Community Bond Fund during the COVID-19 pandemic, For the People Artists Collective is curating a virtual quilt to memorialize individuals who have died of COVID-19 while in the custody of Cook County Jail.

Cook County Jail has been named by the New York Times as the “top hot spot” in the nation’s pandemic.

Over 300 people incarcerated there have tested positive for COVID-19, and the rate of infection has climbed to 68 out of every 1,000 people.

As artists and cultural workers, we know that mainstream media narrative consistently dehumanizes the lives lost within the state’s walls, often providing very little more than a duplication of their arrest report or criminal histories.

We believe no one’s life is disposable, and any death from COVID-19 that happens in custody was absolutely a preventable death.



Sharlyn Grace knew coronavirus was going to be a problem.

So on March 6—well before most of the nation was aware of the havoc the virus would wreak—Grace and her team at the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) put out their first statement calling for the decarceration of the city’s Cook County Jail, the largest single jail site in the U.S.

“We shouldn’t be giving people death sentences by carelessly exposing them to this incredibly dangerous illness,” Grace told Newsweek.

The CCBF is a largely volunteer organization that helps cover bond costs for those who can’t afford it. Grace helped found the group in 2014 during the Black Lives Matter movement and serves as its executive director.

Now, all hands are on deck to get as many people out of the jail during the pandemic. Edward Vogel, a volunteer with the group, said Grace has been working nonstop to avert a crisis that could “destabilize the health care system in Chicago.”

Jails and prisons are like a petri dish for COVID-19 and other diseases like it.

Jails in particular have an extremely high turnover rate, with people coming and going nearly every day. Access to cleaning and hygiene supplies are limited, and hand sanitizer is often considered contraband.