They Are Burying Us Alive in Prison

When Covid-19 broke out in Stateville Correctional Center, we were left to die.

Raul Dorado July 16, 2020

Signs pleading for help hang in windows at the Cook County jail complex on April 09, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There are many ways to come to prison. You could have been raised in a seg­re­gat­ed high-rise ghet­to, removed from main­stream soci­ety and cut off from par­tic­i­pa­tion in the legal econ­o­my. Or you could just have been born black. If you inhab­it a black body, you’re near­ly six times more like­ly than whites to be impris­oned, and if you reside in a brown body, you’re three times more like­ly to be impris­oned. Covid-19 came to Stat­eville, unde­tect­ed, in the bod­ies of the prison guards who have direct cus­tody of us.

The message was clear: Despite your best efforts, you cannot earn early release.

Pris­ons are long-term care facil­i­ties, but with­out the actu­al care. Just over four decades ago, Illi­nois fell in line behind a nation­al trend to aban­don the goal of reha­bil­i­ta­tion in favor of puni­tive sen­tenc­ing prac­tices. These prac­tices lay the foun­da­tion of today’s over­crowd­ed pris­ons that have not spared the elder­ly pris­on­er pop­u­la­tion bear­ing the brunt of Covid-19.

When parole was abol­ished in 1978, any incen­tive for good behav­ior and self-reha­bil­i­ta­tion was also elim­i­nat­ed. The mes­sage was clear: Despite your best efforts, you can­not earn ear­ly release. This mes­sage was rein­forced with harsh sen­tenc­ing laws designed to lock us in: Life with­out parole (LWOP), three strikes law, manda­to­ry min­i­mums, var­i­ous sen­tence enhance­ments, and a Truth-In-Sen­tenc­ing (TIS) law that by itself dou­bled the amount of time that peo­ple had to serve in prison.

There was no pub­lic out­cry over TIS. Instead, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment induced the states to enact TIS leg­is­la­tion with the promise of jobs and funds to build new pris­ons. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment promised to fund the ware­hous­ing of human beings who every­one knew would most cer­tain­ly be peo­ple of color.

Hawk­ish politi­cians lever­aged this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Even as crime rates were decreas­ing, they fanned the flames of fear and sold the pub­lic on TIS while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly cat­a­pult­ing them­selves into office with tough-on-crime pro­pa­gan­da. Of course, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment lied and default­ed on their promise to pay for it all. Illi­nois tax­pay­ers were stuck with the bill and peo­ple of col­or were crammed into cells.

When Covid-19 broke out in Stat­eville Cor­rec­tion­al Cen­ter, where I am incar­cer­at­ed, prison admin­is­tra­tors and med­ical staff failed to ade­quate­ly respond and 20 of our friends and neigh­bors lost their life. Prison admin­is­tra­tors under­es­ti­mat­ed the dan­ger, failed to cre­ate space to iso­late indi­vid­u­als, failed to acquire and pro­vide per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and oth­er med­ical sup­plies, and failed to pro­vide us with basic hygiene and san­i­ta­tion prod­ucts. When our friends fell unre­spon­sive, we had to yell at the top of our lungs for help. Our neigh­bors were car­ried out on stretch­ers and just a few hours lat­er were returned back to their cells bare­ly able to walk under their own pow­er. Our friends were like fish out of water gasp­ing for air and some died the very next day. It took some­one dying for the Med­ical Exam­in­er to final­ly start send­ing peo­ple out to the emer­gency room.

By now, every­one has heard the sta­tis­tics recit­ed about the racial dis­par­i­ties of who we incar­cer­ate, but every­one is less acquaint­ed with the peo­ple actu­al­ly serv­ing extreme sen­tences and with the indi­vid­u­als who died in the cus­tody of the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions due to Covid-19 and its accom­plice: indif­fer­ence. That’s how dehu­man­iza­tion works: Deny­ing us the full por­tion of our human­i­ty allows those in pow­er to anes­thetize them­selves from the fact that a real per­son just died. They can bull­doze a mound of dirt over us and bury us alive in these mas­sive tombs. But we know that allow­ing some­one to die is sub­ject to the same moral appraisal as killing some­one. Indif­fer­ence shares a bed with intent, and they both soil the linens just the same.

To some degree we are all bro­ken like the glass on store­front win­dows and the best years of our lives have been loot­ed. Those who con­tin­u­ous­ly dehu­man­ize us could only iden­ti­fy the sharp edges of our brokenness.

Most law­mak­ers respon­si­ble for plun­der­ing the sup­ply of black and brown youth from our com­mu­ni­ties are no longer in office. And while many of our cur­rent leg­is­la­tors are will­ing to acknowl­edge the harms of mass incar­cer­a­tion, most are unwill­ing to expend the polit­i­cal cap­i­tal to return us to our com­mu­ni­ties and reunite us with our loved ones. Not only do they fear being smeared as soft-on-crime, but they also fear polit­i­cal reprisals from the prison guards’ union that prof­its from our imprisonment.

Pinned under the knee of this injus­tice, we feel the weight of indif­fer­ence bear­ing down on us. We col­lec­tive­ly suf­fer the trau­ma of asphyx­i­a­tion and we can’t breathe! There is no safe­ty from moral appraisal on the side­lines: You either help or you let us die!

I am co-founder of Parole Illi­nois, an inside-out­side prison project address­ing the effects of long-term incar­cer­a­tion. Our group is sup­port­ing a bill in the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture, SB3233: Earned Dis­cre­tionary Release, which would address the needs of every cat­e­go­ry of incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple. Any EDR leg­is­la­tion must be retroac­tive to include the peo­ple who for decades have shoul­dered the bur­den of mass incar­cer­a­tion. I would like to give cred­it where cred­it is due and praise Gov­er­nor J.B. Pritzk­er for coura­geous­ly using his pow­er of Exec­u­tive Clemen­cy to grant sen­tence com­mu­ta­tions. There is still urgency to pass­ing leg­is­la­tion that gives a sec­ond chance to oth­ers in our over­crowd­ed prison sys­tem. Leg­is­la­tors can act now to save lives.

A ver­sion of the above state­ment was deliv­ered by Raúl Dora­do at A People’s Tri­bunal: COVID-19 and the Cri­sis of Death by Incar­cer­a­tion,” a Zoom webi­nar that took place June 4, 2020. The event was orga­nized by a coali­tion of groups led by Parole Illinois.

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