Louisiana Activists Launch National Coalition to Demand Controlled Evacuations of Prisons During the Pandemic

By Suzy Subways

A national coalition led by the Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers is forming to fight for controlled evacuations of incarcerated people—and it needs you. 

For the past year, loved ones of incarcerated people and other activists have pressured states to release large numbers of people from prisons in order to prevent massive loss of life. But very few people have been released, and as a result of prison conditions, one in five incarcerated people have gotten COVID-19. According to the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, at least 2,368 incarcerated people have died in the U.S. from the virus so far. 

Belinda Parker-Brown

Belinda Parker-Brown, CEO and co-founder of Louisiana United International, Inc. (LUI), is working to stop this. Through LUI’s Enforce the 8th initiative, Parker-Brown aspires to shape a national narrative that maximizes our chances of adequately protecting U.S. detainees, inmates, and prisoners from exposure to COVID-19. She has assembled a Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers. The lead manager of the working group, Dr. Zena Crenshaw-Logal, a prominent human rights defender, is currently reaching out to activists in other states to talk about which strategies are working and can be tried in new places without reinventing the wheel. 

Dr. Zena Crenshaw-Logal emphasizes that every state governor has the power to carry out a controlled evacuation of their state’s prisons—they don’t need the approval of the courts or legislature. She points out that holding people in prison at avoidable risk of COVID-19 is not just unconstitutional, it’s fairly considered a criminal offense—a crime of state battery, assault, and a crime against humanity. She proposes that governors and appropriate federal officials be held responsible for the suffering and death. 

But first, she proposes that advocates in each state mimic what LUI has done in Louisiana: Put together a panel of experts who can oversee a state-of-the-art decarceration formula for their state and establish where people can go when they are released from prison. “We want to make sure this is done right,” Crenshaw-Logal says, “by people who have been working on this issue in the community.” She explains that LUI has created a proposal that activists in other states can use as a template to argue for these government contracts in their state. 

The Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers runs the Enforce the 8th initiative, which references the U.S. 8th Amendment prohibiting cruel and usual punishment. To get everyone coordinated and mutually supporting each other as much as possible, coalition participants will have access to free online training, central calendaring, and social networking. In this coalition, activists from different states can share strategies for successfully winning reductions to prison populations. 

Part of the challenge will be to shape the national narrative, Parker-Brown says, as major media have not been covering this issue, let alone covering it in a way that lays the groundwork for the actions that are needed in order to save lives. 

“The concept of governors using their evacuation powers is not part of the national narrative,” she says. “Everyone who’s out there fighting should make this part of their platform. If we don’t say it, the major media will dictate the narrative.”

Aging Black Liberation Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, Bedridden with COVID-19 and Cancer, Shows Us Why PA Must #FreeEmAll

by Suzy Subways

As COVID-19 surges through the state and tears through its prisons, loved ones of incarcerated people are driving to Harrisburg today, calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to use his reprieve power to immediately release all elderly and medically vulnerable people in prison. Loved ones are also asking the Department of Corrections to require prison staff to wear face masks and be tested for COVID-19. As part of a national caravan for health and social justice, the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign worked with local anti-prison groups like the Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) to center the survival of people in prison on this day. The car caravan will circle the state capitol and proceed to the governor’s mansion.

Amid the horror that is the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections right now, Black liberation movement political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz may be one of the best examples of how that horror is playing out for elderly prisoners and their families. Maroon is 77 years old and has been fighting stage 4 colon cancer for over a year. After testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 11, Maroon was held in a gymnasium with 29 other men—and only one toilet to share between them. Meanwhile, he has had blood in his stool, and his urgent surgery for the cancer is now being denied. 

Continue reading “Aging Black Liberation Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, Bedridden with COVID-19 and Cancer, Shows Us Why PA Must #FreeEmAll”

When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison

Ideas for support and advocacy during the COVID-19 crisis 

By Evelyne Kane and Suzy Subways

It’s challenging enough for loved ones of people in prison: paying for expensive phone calls, trying to advocate for your loved one’s health, keeping your head up through it all. And now we have to deal with this new virus. Here are what we hope will be some helpful ideas and suggestions, which we’ve gathered from people in prison, their loved ones on the outside, and other activists:

Coronavirus Info to Share with Your Loved One in Prison:

COVID-19 is the name for the new disease spread by the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is very easy to spread from person to person, and transmission can happen in a number of ways, including:

  • From close contact with another person who has the virus (being within 6 feet of them)
  • Through contaminated surfaces or objects (the virus can live on many surfaces for hours or even days)
  • Through contaminated particles in the air (for instance, when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes)

Continue reading “When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison”

“My Heart Is Broken in Pieces”: Family Grieves Son Lost to Excessive Force from Corrections Officers

By Evelyne Kane

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

A few days before Christmas, Shaleda and Ervin Busbee sit together in their cozy and well-kept rowhouse in West Philadelphia. From the living room, a lighted Christmas tree ringed with gifts glows softly. Despite the festivity of the season, the Busbees’ spirits are heavy this year as they grieve the loss of their son, Tyrone Briggs, who was killed on November 11, 2019 while incarcerated at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy. His family and legal team allege that his death was caused by excessive use of pepper spray by Mahanoy staff.

Continue reading ““My Heart Is Broken in Pieces”: Family Grieves Son Lost to Excessive Force from Corrections Officers”

Legal Advocates Support Philadelphia Family Seeking Justice for Son Allegedly Killed by Prison Guards

By Evelyne Kane

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

On November 11, 2019, Tyrone Briggs died at the age of 29 while incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy, a 1,000-cell, all-male, medium-security correctional facility located in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, 13 of Mahanoy’s medical and security staff were suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into Briggs’ death. In a press release, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel promised that “whatever the outcome of this case, we are going to be as transparent as possible, and the DOC will take whatever remedial measures deemed to be necessary.” Despite this promise, additional details about the cause of Briggs’ death have been slow to follow. Reports from other individuals incarcerated at Mahanoy, including a prisonradio.org podcast from Mumia Abu-Jamal, have attributed Briggs’ death to the excessive use of oleoresin capsicum (OC), or “pepper spray.” In accounts from witnesses inside Mahanoy, it is believed that guards responded to an altercation between Briggs and another inmate by spraying the two men with OC. They subsequently tackled Briggs to the ground, held him down, and continued to OC-spray him. Briggs was heard to say, “I can’t breathe,” several times during the incident, and it is believed that these were his last words. Continue reading “Legal Advocates Support Philadelphia Family Seeking Justice for Son Allegedly Killed by Prison Guards”

“There’s People Like Myself and Others Out Here Fighting for You”

An interview with activist and longtime Prison Health News editor Teresa Sullivan

By Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019

Teresa Sullivan, who has been a vital part of keeping Prison Health News going for the past ten years, is leaving the editorial collective. We are overwhelmed with gratitude for her wisdom and guidance over the years, and we are so excited to support her amazing work in the world moving forward. From teaching classes at Philadelphia FIGHT to her leadership role in the Positive Women’s Network, a social justice organization of women living with HI V , T eresa helps so many people grow stronger and smarter . In this interview, we asked Teresa to tell us more about her work and vision. Continue reading ““There’s People Like Myself and Others Out Here Fighting for You””

Good News Comes Slowly on Access to Hepatitis C Medications

By Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 39, Winter/Spring 2019

Very few people in prison who are living with hepatitis C are getting medication to treat and cure it — only 3%, according to a Columbia University survey released last year. But this is changing, slowly. California passed a budget to treat 22,000 people living with hep C in prison. People in Indiana, Massachusetts, Colorado and Pennsylvania prisons won class-action lawsuit settlements requiring the states to provide treatment in prison for everyone with chronic hepatitis C. And lawsuits in many other states are ongoing. Continue reading “Good News Comes Slowly on Access to Hepatitis C Medications”

New Mail Rules in Pennsylvania May Spread Nationwide

By Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 38, Fall 2018

On September 5th, after a 12-day lockdown of all 25 prisons in the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) made drastic permanent changes to mail and visits. The DOC claimed that dozens of guards had been exposed to synthetic drugs, and that the lockdown and new restrictions were intended to protect them. But no tests showed that the drugs were in the sick officers’ bodies. Toxicology experts and the medical directors of the hospital emergency rooms where the guards were taken told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the guards’ symptoms were consistent with anxiety. They called it a “mass psychogenic illness” — anxiety symptoms that can happen when groups of people share a contagious fear of being exposed to something, even though they haven’t been. No mailroom staff reported getting sick. Continue reading “New Mail Rules in Pennsylvania May Spread Nationwide”

The Hep C Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual

By Mumia Abu-Jamal, with the assistance of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, PA

From PHN Issue 37, Summer 2018

This manual is designed to walk any person infected with hepatitis C through the obstacle courses erected by medical staff and prison officials who seek to deny or delay hepatitis C treatment which leads to a cure from the infection. Continue reading “The Hep C Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual”

The PREA Problem

by Fatima Malika Shabazz

From PHN Issue 37, Summer 2018

Content warning: this article discusses traumatic experiences, including sexual assault.

I can safely say that at least six out of every 10 times I pick up an LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex community) newsletter or magazine, there is a person in prison somewhere in the country who is being victimized by prison or jail staff from weaponized PREA standards. If you are unaware of what the acronym stands for, it means Prison Rape Elimination Act. PREA was written to provide a resource (anonymous or otherwise) for people confined in America’s gulags (prisons) and mini gulags (jails) to report rapes and sexual abuses committed by both inmates and staff. However, this policy is often used as a hammer against the very people it was written to protect, while at the same time serving to shield the violators of its policies. Continue reading “The PREA Problem”