Opinion: Governor Wolf — Free the Vulnerable People You Promised to Release


Generocity: Lulu Obaditch - August 4, 2020

Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections refuse to confront a deadly crisis. Worse, they promised to take action, but they’re not following through.

On April 10, Governor Wolf signed a reprieve order, declaring 1,800 people eligible for release from incarceration because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, after three months of crisis, prison lockdowns, and inaction, the state has only released a fraction of those eligible: approximately 150 individuals — in the midst of a deadly worldwide health crisis.

Due to Pennsylvania’s high rate of sentencing people to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) or death by incarceration (DBI), the state imprisons an overwhelmingly large elderly population. According to Lifers Inc, Pennsylvania incarcerates the second highest number of individuals serving death by incarceration sentences in the United States. Roughly one in every four people incarcerated in Pennsylvania is over the age of 50.

In other words, almost 25% of individuals incarcerated in Pennsylvania are at heightened risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the novel coronavirus due to age alone.

This does not include a myriad of other conditions that might make someone medically vulnerable. Around 12,000 incarcerated people in PA may be considered medically vulnerable in accordance with CDC guidelines. These statistics are astonishing.

We cannot forget that these vulnerable people locked up in PA prisons are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, leaders, mentors, and educators. They should be home with their loved ones and families, instead they are unable to social distance, isolated in cells for 22 hours a day during COVID-19 lockdowns, and denied medical care, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment.

Free People Strike (FPS) was born out of the urgency to release the cherished individuals held hostage in state-sanctioned death camps. FPS is a multi-racial and multi-generational group of Pennsylvanians on a rolling hunger strike to demand that Governor Wolf release and protect those at high risk for infection during the COVID-19 crisis.

This grassroots campaign was built by activists, including family members of those incarcerated. The group has been endorsed or supported by over twenty organizations, including the Poor People’s Campaign, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), Abolitionist Law Center, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), Shut Down Berks Coalition, and Philly for REAL Justice. Hunger strikes are one of the only tools available for those who are detained and incarcerated to get their needs met on the inside and this action acknowledges their historic and ongoing use.

At the commencement of their strike on May 28, FPS sent out a comprehensive letter and list of demands to Governor Wolf. These demands were adapted from an initial set of demands put forth by ACLU-PA, Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project.

During this moment in which people across the country are crying out in resistance and denouncing the police and state violence everywhere, groups such as the Free People Strike are illuminating the connection between white supremacist, anti-Black state violence outside of prison walls and that same violence as perpetuated by correctional officers on the inside. The group emphasizes that “prison abuse from guards happens regularly just like police abuse on the streets, only hidden from view, and both are deeply interconnected on a continuum of oppression and violence.”

We must be prepared to not only stand and fight for those such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain, but also shout the names of Michael Davis, Jamel Floyd, Natasha McKenna, and all those murdered by correctional officers on the inside.

The refusal to release vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 crisis is state violence.

The use of solitary confinement in the name of social distancing is state violence.

The use of pepper spray, O.C. spray, and tear gas is state violence.

Prisons are arguably the epitome of state violence.

This is all deeply interrelated with white supremacy, requiring white people to recognize the ways in which we/you/they are protected by prisons and policing, and to join in multi-racial coalitions to end this system once and for all. We are living in a state and in a country that was not built to protect human beings. The fact that Pennsylvania refuses to prioritize and protect people and their lives from a deadly virus is cruel and disheartening.

It is time to confront our reality and demand that those in power decarcerate.

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