Reports during the lockdown have highlighted jails. Everyone who might have tried to not think ever about jails has been forced to see jails. If there is an infectious disease in the jail, it will soon threaten us.
- In jail, social distancing is, of course, impossible. Cells for two often house three prisoners. Meals are crowded. The exercise space is crowded. In one New York City jail, 29 prisoners share one toilet. World-wide this figure is sometimes much higher. Hand sanitizer is often banned in jails.
- Prison populations are being infected with the virus, all over the world. It takes an epidemic as infectious as the Covid-19 one to make us remember that prisons are part of our society. We, the outside, visit prisons daily. There are changing shifts of guards, cooks, clerical staff, nurses – who all come back to a family and neighbours. There are regular visits by the same delivery van drivers and loaders, as well as suppliers of meat, fish and groceries, while rubbish collectors interact with the inside of the prison, too. We are all one, as far as the virus is concerned. And the virus needs a host. Any host. Any class. Harvey Weinstein, greatest name in all Hollywood who rubbed shoulders with Presidents now condemned as sexual predator, has tested positive from his prison cell. And thousands upon thousands of people “without names” are getting the illness. The virus makes no distinction.
- Faced with the threat of an epidemic, prisoners all over the world have reacted. There have been mutinies in Columbian prisons, Italian prisons, Thailand prisons and, as we know, in the main Mauritian prison – all since the beginning of lockdown for the coronavirus epidemic.
- The Authorities have, in turn, reacted. Turkey released some 90,000 prisoners four days ago. A month ago Indonesia released 30,000. In Afghanistan 10,000 were released. 10,000 in Columbia. Iran released 54,000 prisoners. In the USA, small jails all over the country are releasing prisoners, just as the main ones are. Even Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen has been released. Mauritius released about a quarter of its prisoners. They all announce and do this, with the greatest of ease.
All this to say that the virus has taught us that:
- There are people in jail who need not be.
- These people, and maybe others, should have been released in any case.
Who are all these prisoners who should not be in prison? In our opinion in LALIT, to start with, the following:
1. Those who cannot pay bail. Logical. If they had the money, they would not be in jail. Therefore they are being locked up because they are poor.
2. Those who cannot pay a fine. Logical. If they had money, they would not be in jail. Therefore they are being locked up because they are poor.
3. Those on drug-using offences. These are offences of either life-style, smoking gandya, or due to dependence, meaning the offender suffers an illness and needs treatment. In neither case should they be locked up.
4. Those who are old, or infirm. They need to be released for humanitarian reasons.
5. Those guilty of non-violent crimes.
Everyone knows that world-wide, and Mauritius is no exception, women make up a small proportion of total of people in jail. Say, 5-10% of the total, instead of 52% or so. Jails are places where the state locks up mainly men. The men and women locked up are disproportionately in the USA. While the USA is 4% of the world’s population, it is responsible for locking up an incredible 22% of the world’s prisoners. American women make up 30% of the women in the world’s prison population – no doubt because they are less dominated by the jail sub-contractors in the form of fathers, brothers, husbands. Let me explain: In the women’s movement, we joke that this is because we women are already in jail, the State relying on fathers, brothers and husbands to be the jailkeepers.
(It is a strange coincidence that the USA, while 4% of the world’s population is now, at this point in the curve of Covid-19, around 25% of the worlds cases [764,265 out of 2,408,148 – although it now does the most testing, which inflates its figures] and deaths [40,565 out of 165,105]. )
So, when there is lockdown, we are all, in a way, already locked up. So, the State finds it easier to release prisoners. Although, the real reason is that, if they don’t release some, the prisons will be the cause of the entire society getting the infectious illness really fast and furious.
And, as has been noted world-wide, crime is down during the epidemic. Not only that, but in many places, like Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, it is the drug gang bosses who are running food distribution in the slums. So, we learn that the incorrigible are indeed redeemable.
So, the prisoners who we say should be released make up some 3/4 of all prisoners. Half are locked up because they are poor. The rest are locked up because they smoked a joint, or they are dependent on some substance, often derived from opiates, or they are already old or infirm.
So, the virus teaches us not only about epidemiology and statistics and exponential curves, but also about the crime of jails. The criminals are the jailors (the industry that goes from judges-lawyers-police-prison guards) more than most of the jailed. And releasing most of the jailed is dead easy: you just release them. Nothing happens.
The worst of all jailers is the USA. It locks up 2.3 million people, mainly men, mainly from poor neighbourhoods, often without proper lawyers, and because of the particularly American crime: plea bargaining. The police arrest you, then threaten to charge you with murder for any-old-case. If you plead guilty to a lesser charge, say, culpable homicide, then the prosecutor will withdraw the murder charge, and speed up the whole process. This is how poor men get locked up – even for nothing and without a real trial. In California, there is the “three strikes and you’re out” law that would mean if you have two minor offences previously and then you pleaded guilty as part of a plea-bargain in some trumped up violent charge, you are in for life. The huge prison industry – many new prisons are private for profit-institutions – has grown mainly in the American countryside, just as the rural hospitals and even schools, have been under-funded and closed down. All this we can learn more easily in the lockdown.
We see it very clearly: The lack of hospital beds alongside the huge industry for locking up young men for long sentences.
for LALIT, a personal view.