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.”

How to Obtain/Secure a Medical Release of Information for an Incarcerated Individual in PA State Prison

By Elaine Selan, RN, MSN

Our current health crisis is one that impacts each of us in different ways; it brings to light so many questions and concerns.  Often as nurse who is also a human rights activist, I am contacted by family members asking how one can obtain medical information about a loved one who is incarcerated.  Typically, this need arrives when the loved one becomes ill.  However, getting a Release of Information [ROI] when your loved one is not ill will make it easier to get information if the need occurs.

The process has many steps; and, even if followed correctly, the DOC’s health services may present obstacles that need to be addressed.  Determination is crucial!!! 

Continue reading “How to Obtain/Secure a Medical Release of Information for an Incarcerated Individual in PA State Prison”

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”

A Brief Overview of Psychiatric Medications and What They Do

By Lucy Gleysteen

From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019

Below is a brief overview of psychiatric medications, what they are typically used to treat, their purpose, and common side effects.

Antipsychotics

The primary purpose of antipsychotics is to treat psychosis. Psychosis can involve the presence of delusions or hallucinations. They can also be used in combination with other drugs to treat other conditions. Continue reading “A Brief Overview of Psychiatric Medications and What They Do”

Drugs in Prison

by Naswan Miller

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

I write this out of desperation and grief for the sanity, safety, and rehabilitation for myself and fellow prisoners over the unchecked drug epidemic at Dillwyn Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Virginia. For the past few years, since my arrival, I have witnessed prisoners fall out unconscious, display violent behavior toward prisoners and staff, and walk around in a zombie-like state from drug impairments. The drugs currently coming into the facility that I’ve witnessed are cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, spice, suboxone strips, marijuana, and tobacco. Continue reading “Drugs in Prison”

Birthing Behind Bars: A Campaign for Reproductive Justice in Prisons

by Victoria Law and Tina Reynolds

From PHN Issue 14, Summer 2012

“I never thought of advocating outside of prison. I just wanted to have some semblance of a normal life once I was released,” stated Tina Reynolds, a mother and formerly incarcerated woman. But then she gave birth to her son while in prison for a parole violation:

   “When I went into labor, my water broke. The prison van came to pick me up, I was shackled. Once I was in the van, I was handcuffed. I was taken to the hospital. The handcuffs were taken off, but the shackles weren’t. I walked to the wheelchair that they brought over to me and I sat in the wheelchair with shackles on me. They re-handcuffed me once I was in the wheelchair and took me up to the floor where women had their children. Continue reading “Birthing Behind Bars: A Campaign for Reproductive Justice in Prisons”

NO JUSTICE!: When Sex Work Brands You as a “Sex Offender” in New Orleans

by Deon Haywood and Laura McTighe

From PHN Issue 10, Spring 2011

Since our founding in 1991, Women With A Vision, Inc (WWAV) has been standing with the women of New Orleans, no questions asked. We have been trusted with stories that few others hear. But little could have prepared us for that day when ‘J’ pulled out her photo identification card, which read ‘SEX OFFENDER’ in block orange letters. As she explained how she had gotten picked up during a Mardi Gras round up and charged with a crime against nature, she was filled with anger and pain that marked this as the latest instance in a long history of exploitation. She is only 23 years old, one month clean from an 8 1⁄2 year heroin addiction. The ‘sex offender’ label will remain on her ID until she turns 48. Continue reading “NO JUSTICE!: When Sex Work Brands You as a “Sex Offender” in New Orleans”

Recovery from Injustice: An Interview with Ronnie Stephens

by Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 10, Spring 2011

Ronnie Stephens is an HIV outreach advocate and consultant in Austin, Texas. He has been HIV positive for 10 years and a worker in AIDS services for 14 years. His life’s work is with people who are at risk for HIV because of homophobia, racism, and imprisonment. “I try to target the population that I was locked up with,” he explains. Stephens has been in drug recovery for ten years and gives it much of the credit for his survival. But to him, recovery from drugs is only part of the picture. Like preventing HIV and staying out of jail, it goes beyond the individual. Communities have to do this work together.

Q: What do you mean by “recovery from injustice”?

A: A lot of people who do AIDS strategy don’t really get the idea of social injustice. When they talk about substance abuse and prison, I say, well, half of these kids got beat up down there. They beat you up, and [the prison guards] say, “Well that’s because of what you are.” So what do you have to offer our clients coming out? These kids have been abused. Some of them have been raped, some of them have no family to go to. What do you do for those individuals who are coming back into society and don’t have any family to turn to? That’s kind of traumatizing. That hurts. Continue reading “Recovery from Injustice: An Interview with Ronnie Stephens”

Think About It…

By John Bell (formerly incarcerated) and Laura McTighe

From PHN Issue 4, August 2004

We teach a class for brothers and sisters with HIV that are just getting out of jail and prison. The class is primarily about dealing with life on the out- side. But we also spend a lot of time talking about the pain people suffered while locked up—especially how frequently people had to choose between getting the care they needed for their health and keeping quiet so that no one in their facility would find out their HIV status.

We are writing this article for those of you who are dealing with this issue on the inside now. We do not have answers for you, but there are some things that we want you to know.

It’s Your Call.

There is no protocol and no correct stance on sharing your health status in jail. It is up to you. In prison, being able to make decisions about when, how and to whom you disclose your status is hard if not impossible. Pretty much anything you can do to take care of yourself breaks your confidentiality as a person living with HIV.

Once people know your status in your facility, there is no getting away from the looks, the stares, the comments like “HIV bitch” or “He’s got that hot shit.” Before you think about getting medical care or telling anyone your status, you need to be able to say, “If you have a problem with me being HIV positive, I sincerely hope you get over it” …and mean it.

Accepting It.

People living with HIV have seen a lot of people pass before them—neighbors that dropped off without a trace, friends they watched get sick, family members they cared for at the end stages.

We know that these memories weigh heavily on you—that every time you think about those people who passed on before you, you feel terrified about your own health, about when you will get sick. And, at the same time, it is these memories and this same fear that make you think about reaching out for help and for medical care.

Your Body.

You have probably heard that HIV weakens the immune system so your body cannot fight off infections on its own. But have you heard that your immune system is very strong, and for a long time it wins out against HIV? On average, it takes 10 years before HIV can run through your immune system enough for you to even start feeling symptoms. And if you take care of yourself, you can make that time even longer.

If You Get Sick.

The most important things you can do are to 1. know your body and 2. keep an eye out for changes in your health. Things to watch for: herpes blisters and cold sores that do not go away, thrush that makes your mouth and throat dry and whitish, or pneumonia that makes you really tired and short of breath. Women should also watch for repeated yeast infections.

There are meds you can take to fight off infections like these, and there are also anti-HIV meds you can take to knock out HIV, so your immune system can get strong again and fight off infections on its own. You should be able to get these meds at your facility.

Confidentiality.

But in prison, it is rarely possible to just go to the clinic, get your meds and keep your health status private. If you go to the medical staff about your HIV, 9 times out of 10 someone else is going to find out. A correctional officer might overhear you talking with the doctor, or there might be a scheduled clinic time for the infectious dis- ease doctor at your facility so all inmates know that is the day for people with HIV, or other inmates might see or hear the meds you take in med lines. Whatever the case, no facility protects your confidentiality 100%.

The Choice.

Whether you decide to seek medical care or refuse it, your life is on the line—from the HIV or from the dis- crimination you face in your facility. This is not an easy or fair choice.

There are many people in prison who have stood up to the abuse that people with HIV face, and are getting medical care. We applaud you for your bravery, and know that you have served as inspirations for people in your facilities who are not open about their HIV.

But there are many more people getting sick behind bars, because they have refused treatment. We stand along side you and offer our support in dealing with this difficult decision.

Your Safety.

Whatever decision you make, please keep yourself safe on the inside. You are too valuable, and there is too much work for you to do when you get out.

If you are too afraid to tell people your health status, don’t. If you are afraid to get medical care because others will find out your status, don’t. If you are going to seek medical care, make sure you have someone you can lean on for support—even if it is someone you write to on the outside. If you are going to seek medical care only if you get sick, start preparing now. It will be even harder to deal with the mental and emotional pain from stigma if your body is also weak.

Health Without Meds.

If you choose to not get medical care while you are locked up, take steps to keep yourself healthy.

Bottom line: if germs cannot get inside your body, they cannot make you sick. Shower regularly, wash your hands before you eat, and keep cuts and scrapes clean.

Also, exercise and stress reduction help to keep your immune system strong. Doing push-up, sit-ups and playing sports will all strengthen your body, plus exercise helps you let out tension. And, while it is hard to really get rid of stress on the inside, if you can find five minutes each day to slow down and take some deep breaths, you will feel the difference.

We Are Here.

We are waiting for you on the outside. There are advocates across the country who will make sure that you get the services that you need, and that you have a community of people who are HIV positive and recently released to help support you. You are not alone.