As an organizer, I often work with people who are incarcerated. On a regular day, they face huge challenges. But in recent weeks, I’ve heard especially troubling stories about lack of PPE, soap, and health care, especially for pregnant, immunocompromised, and otherwise vulnerable people — all in the middle of a pandemic. Recently, one of my colleagues got a call from an incarcerated woman with a desperate plea: “Anything could happen to me. I could die here.”
These facilities are known to be overcrowded — now further exposing the incarcerated to COVID. As I listened, appalled, to the woman who called my colleague, I thought of a leader I work with in the Dignity Act Now Collective, Christine Ross. Recently bailed out by the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Ross said she just missed the onslaught of corralling people into what she called Philadelphia’s own “concentration camps.” She described spending nearly full days in a cell while struggling to access cleaning supplies, masks, and soap.
Yet, release from jail or prison doesn’t mean relief or security for these women. There aren’t many services in place to support formerly incarcerated Black women, as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming people (TGNC). Newly formed organizations like Mary’s Daughter for the Formerly Incarcerated, of which I am the founder and executive director, and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund often lack the funding and operational infrastructure to fully tackle this public health crisis.
Wraparound services, including housing and employment support, are the least of what the prison-industrial complex and economy that benefits from incarceration can provide. Many Black women and TGNC folks return home to eviction notices and no means to employment, on top of businesses closing due to COVID, which has reduced available jobs. No employment means violating their probation or parole, and no reunification with their children.
Therapeutic support, alongside mental and reproductive health care during and after incarceration, is needed, too. As Rachel Santiago, a lead mobilizer in the Dignity Act Now Collective who herself was formerly incarcerated, said, “There is disregard for women all the time” in the criminal justice system. Women and TGNC with mental health and substance abuse issues need gender-specific diversion programs to connect them to appropriate rehabilitation services.
WiFi access and digital literacy are the third pillar of crucial support during COVID. Lack of knowledge due to incarceration becomes a barrier to accessing social and public services, isolating an already marginalized community. People in jail and prison who are in recovery especially need access to digital meetings to prevent relapse and recidivism.
To support directly impacted Black women, trans, and nonbinary people in Pennsylvania, Mary’s Daughter for the Formerly Incarcerated helps them tell their story, humanize their experience, and build power with other affected people across the state. We focus on three projects: the Dignity Act Now Collective to develop the leadership of returning women and TGNC folks, the Black Mama’s Bail Out project to bail out Black mothers and caregivers in Pennsylvania and connect them to housing, as well as therapeutic support, and the Nazura Housing Project to provide transitional housing.
But our efforts alone can’t provide everything these women need, both while they are incarcerated and after. Prison authorities need to take action. We demand that the commissioner lift probation detainers and bench warrants keeping people unnecessarily locked up during COVID, and immediate release of all vulnerable people, including pregnant women, trans and nonbinary people, elders, and the mentally or terminally ill. Those released should have a path to housing and receive care packages with hygiene items and PPE.
For anyone who needs help with reentry right now: After the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project sued the city over its jail conditions amid COVID, we got access to a hotline for people to report concerns about conditions. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with move-related concerns can call the ACLU: 267-388-1349, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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