Tomorrow is Juneteenth, the commemoration of a declaration of emancipation for the last remaining enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy, in Galveston Texas.
On this year’s Juneteenth, we are in the middle of a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black, Latinx, and Native communities, as well as a national movement to address the longstanding impact of racism and white supremacy in our country. We are in a fight for collective liberation.
And as we are fighting for freedom from racist police structures, violent and deadly supremacist narratives, and institutional inequities in every sector of society, let us not forget those who are still held captive by our nation’s system of mass incarceration.
As Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself.”
Prisons are a microcosm of many of the worst narratives held by our nation. Combine our nation’s myth of meritocracy, with its obsession with law and order, faulty theologies based in retribution and redemptive violence, and the narrative of Black (and brown) criminality that undergirds white supremacy, and you get our current system of mass incarceration that is vastly ineffective, costs billions, and disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and Native communities. These racialized narratives of criminality and immorality are similarly projected onto many of our immigrant siblings, building up a rhetoric of certain human beings as “illegal,” and allowing both children and adults to be separated from their families and detained by ICE in unjust and harmful conditions. Some of these adults are held in ICE detention after serving previous prison sentences.
As Dr. Angela Davis states so powerfully in Are Prisons Obsolete:
“Because of the persistent power of racism, “criminals” and “evildoers” are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs — it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
Our prison system is not only racist, but also invests massive amounts of our resources into the control and criminalization of communities of color, rather than into their health, economic development, and flourishing. We spend an estimated $100 billion on policing every year, and another $80 billion on incarceration (which some say is a gross underestimate), and consequently, these systems consume a vast majority of our social wealth and divert funds away from alleviating the conditions that lead people to prison in the first place. Imagine how different our society would look if we spent $180 billion a year on programs that supported education, jobs, housing, health care, economic development, and healing for communities who are most vulnerable!
As an Asian American who used to volunteer regularly in prisons, and experienced deep kinship and shared faith with many incarcerated siblings, I take a moment to remember them in this moment:
- I choose to remember all of our incarcerated siblings in this time, and mourn all that they are facing in this moment. The lack of access to hand sanitizer and other protective health measures. The loss of formative and potentially life-changing programs, as there are bans on volunteers and a lack of infrastructure for volunteer programs to move to a digital space. The restrictions on gathering in chapel services and worship, even for those who are on the inside. The inability to see, hug, or touch loved ones in this crisis, or to even grieve the losses of those they love. The isolation, the mental health struggles, and the ongoing loss of freedom that they experience. The uncertainty about their futures.
- I choose to remember those in prison who are sick with covid-19 and mourn the health crisis many prisons are facing. The Marshall Project has been tracking covid-19 cases in prison, and as of last week there have been at least 43,967 cases of coronavirus reported among prisoners, and at least 522 deaths across the country. In California, according to the CDCR covid-19 tracker, there have been 3,3332 cases of coronavirus (doesn’t count county jails or federal prisons) and 17 deaths. The infection rate of coronavirus in CA prisons is 657% higher than California overall. I also lament the ways that an unnecessary and botched transfer process brought covid-19 to San Quentin, a prison I used to volunteer at regularly. The case count has gone from zero to 47 in the past few weeks.
- I choose to remember those who are currently in ICE detention, including those who have contracted covid-19. According to the recent data released by ICE, there have been at least 1,623 positive cases of covid-19. At least 2 people have died in custody, and one died after being released. Moreover, the Trump administration continues to deport thousands of people, including many asylum seekers -causing both health and safety risks for both them and the countries they are being deported to.
- I choose to remember children who are still held in immigration detention or even deported to unsafe conditions in a pandemic. I mourn that these children are being held in crowded, unsafe conditions, that over 1500 children were “lost” in the system by the U.S. government, and that hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant youth who are fleeing violent and deadly conditions are being turned away at the border.
- I remember that there are millions of Americans who are excluded from democratic processes and cannot vote in elections due to being previously incarcerated. While disenfranchisement laws vary from state to states, it disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, and is part of a broader movement of voter suppression that has come since the Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013 and will surely impact the 2020 Elections.
- I remember and honor all of the amazing activism that comes from our incarcerated siblings, and the ways that they too are fighting for our collective liberation. Please watch this powerful video highlighting just one example of this type of activism.
If you feel compelled to work towards the rights and liberation of those impacted by mass incarceration and immigration detention, consider these 4 simple action areas.
- Use this toolkit to call for a suspension of ICE transfers during this pandemic.
- Support the demands of San Quentin inmates in the midst of the recent covid-19 outbreak
- Consider helping to pass the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, which was just introduced today by Senator Markey as pending legislation.
- Advocate for voter protections through the Voting Rights Advancement Act through this ACLU petition.