Voices for Racial Justice

#UntilWeAreAllFree in the Time of COVID-19

Isolation is cold, the actual physical feeling of isolation is the feeling of being devoid of human contact. Being reprimanded to the house for us is difficult as spring emerges and the warmth of the sun continues to shine closer and closer to the earth. We can begin to feel further and further apart. The weight of the family and community disconnect is heavy for us all. These days the dreams of our children lives in every cough, the hopes of our ancestors are in our shoes every time we venture out to the store to get supplies to feed our families.

 I’ve found myself thinking that I was so glad that I left Minnesota correctional facilities last year when did, but before I can settle too far into that thought my phone rings, and I get a call from a Minnesota correctional facility whose cells I spent close to 15 years inside of. I have hundreds of men who I consider brothers still captive in that space. I did push ups on those slabs of concrete and left sweat and tears there, and in that, my individual peace and freedom is reminded of the ties that bind us all. I am home with the space to safely preserve during this COVID-19 pandemic. The actual process of incarceration is to take a human and strip them of all of the things that make them human, like family, community, and safety. The process of incarceration strips you of all those things and turn you into a number.

 In this moment when we all are reimagining what role do the social institutions that are in place that are supposed to protect us play in this pandemic. It’s time to take a close look at the criminal justice system and ask the question: do the people in prison deserve the death penalty by exposing them to an environment that is contrary to what the medical experts say we should be doing to flatten the curve of infections of COVID-19? In prison there is no space for social distancing, there is no way to eat safely in a prison chow hall. The average unit in prison is filled with at least 200 bodies, and there is no way to have all these people in one space without exposing them to the chances of contracting COVID-19. The DOC does not have the resources to test everyone who is in custody so there is no way to safely handle this population with their safety at the forefront of the efforts. 

Minnesota correctional facilities at any given moment, have at least a quarter of its population that in custody for technical violations which means they are in prison for human error, and not actual crime. I have heard from dozens of men about the experience of being back in prison not for crime, and countless men have told me it feels like being kidnapped, even more so with COVID-19 being confirmed inside of the department of corrections. The time has blitzed our strategy of a long term solution to mass incarceration. The structure of prison is a building that contains 1000s of residents and on any day there are another 100 staff members and volunteers who rotate in and out the doors. It is no longer just a matter of mass incarceration, it is a matter of life and death of fellow human beings.

Recently VRJ released a petition to the MN DOC Commissioner Schnell and Governor Walz to reduce the prison population to protect our incarcerated people. We are expecting a response from them sometime this week. I have confidence that the leadership structure will respond and do what’s right by the people, and it will be space for the community to step in and help with the reentry process for these people i.e housing and community support. If the response from the Commissioner Schnell and Governor Walz does not center the incarcerated, then we will follow up with more demands, and we will keep following up until the voices of our people are heard. 

I know we are all afraid and do not know fully what the future may hold, but one thing for sure, there can be no future for any of us, if there is not a future for all of us. Mass incarceration and COVID-19 cannot exist in the same society and now is the time to carve a new future that centers the freedom and well being of all.