According to The Prison Policy Initiative, at least 4.8 million people are jailed every year. The severity of the charge can range from a non-violent misdemeanour to a felony offence. Either way, everyone follows the same judicial proceedings: they’re accused, arrested, and then assigned a bond for the alleged crime. If they can afford the amount, they’re free to go home. If not, they have to wait for their trial behind bars.
This bail system, though often deemed as fair, relies heavily on financial privilege. In doing so, it disproportionately affects low income communities, which lends to the mass incarceration of black and brown people. Rikers Prison, a detention centre in New York, has recently become the epicentre of this injustice. And with its recent COVID-19 outbreak that has infected more than 330 inmates, this oversight comes with deadly consequences.
Among these activists is Monifa Bandele, the senior vice president of MomsRising, an organisation dedicated to helping mothers navigate hardships. Her work has often involved prison reform and helping the mothers of incarcerated people. Last month, she led digital rallies in support of bail reform — a movement that seeks to eliminate cash bail assignments to low level offences. Now, she’s become an advocate for inmates at Rikers who are trying to survive the pandemic.
“Jails are unable to implement the CDC guidelines needed to flatten the curve and save lives,” Bandele shares with R29Unbothered. “Right now, being unable to pay bail will not only cost you your freedom, but also your life.”
It’s worth noting that the inmates at risk are people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. They haven’t had a trial or chance to defend their case. They could be offenders whose mistakes were circumstantial, or a direct result of socio-economic disadvantages. They could be innocent.
On Monday, April 6, Bendele’s grave prediction came true. CBS News reported Michael Tyson, a 53-year-old man, was the first Rikers detainee to die from COVID-19 exposure. He was sent to Rikers for a technical parole violation following the “attempted sale of a controlled substance.”
Tyson’s death marks a critical time at Rikers. While the facility says it’s working to prevent further spread of the virus, the unfortunate reality is that if one person has died, more fatalities are imminent.
“The Department is committed to robust sanitation protocols throughout its facilities and transportation vehicles, and has ramped up existing cleaning policies to combat the potential spread of the coronavirus,” a spokesperson for The New York Department of Corrections told R29Unbothered.
This issue, exasperated by the coronavirus, has turned into a humanitarian crisis. As Bandele explains, jails are currently unable to safeguard anyone inside. “The enclosed nature of jails, prisons, and immigrant detention facilities, as well as the difficulties of maintaining proper hygiene inside facilities, mean that COVID-19 will likely spread like wildfire,” she adds.
Reporters began releasing accounts of inmate strikes between March 23 and March 27. By March 29, ABC News detailed a lack of sanitary supplies and noted the inability to maintain proper hygiene. On March 31, GQ published an article stating that Rikers inmates were offered $6 an hour and PPE (personal protective equipment — i.e masks and gloves) to dig mass graves as COVID’s spread intensified throughout New York City. About a week later, New York Daily News reported at least 287 people in city custody and 407 Correction Department staff members had tested positive for coronavirus. Most recently The Wall Street Journal reported Quincy Simpson, a guard at the facility, died after testing positive for COVID.
Though this pandemic sheds a light on the grim conditions within Rikers, the broader issue at hand has plagued jails for decades. The current bail system is detrimental to low-income communities and leads to unnecessarily crowded jails. National Bail Out has covered hundreds of people’s bail with donations. In doing so Arissa Hall, the organisation's project director, found that their work has assisted in the release of incarcerated people pre-trial and hasn’t interfered with the judicial system.
Cash bail was created to ensure a defendant’s presence at their trial. However, Hall explains to R29Unbothered that over 90 percent of the people they’ve helped still arrived at their scheduled court date.
“People don’t need a monetary incentive to come back to court, that’s not the issue,” Hall says, “What we have is a problem in our infrastructure, in our ability to support people.”
Since the recent COVID outbreak, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed off on the release of 1,100 state parolees. However New York Daily News found that only a fraction of the inmates at Rikers were actually let out. A report from CNN on April 14 confirmed that The Legal Aid Society, a non-profit that offers free legal services, were able to send at least 100 people home, but the current total number is unclear.
From what we’ve seen at Rikers, it’s clear that this system presents serious safety challenges in the face of a pandemic. But as many reform advocates have pointed out, it’s ineffective even when we’re not in the midst of a global health crisis. Now more than ever, it’s imperative to support the ethical and humane treatment of people awaiting their trial. After all, we’re supposed to be treated as “innocent until proven guilty,” not innocent if you can afford it.