“What people don’t understand is that there’s no way to socially distance inside,” Kelly Savage-Rodriguez explains to me over the phone. Savage-Rodriguez is a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, or CCWP, an organization currently involved with several campaigns for compassionate release and sentence commutations for elderly and immunocompromised prisoners who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Although jail and prison officials claim that they are implementing plans to socially distance, California has a massive overcrowding problem in its detention facilities, and the tendency to pack cells has only helped the virus rip through the state’s prisons and jails. And statistically, the incarcerated population is particularly at risk for COVID-19: Incarcerated people in the U.S. are up to four times more likely to have at least one disability than the general population, and more than 10% of the U.S. prison population is over the age of 55.
To protect the vulnerable populations inside, campaigns like CCWP’s #NoMoreDeaths and #LeadWithMercy have increased in fervor, appealing to the state for increased numbers of compassionate releases and sentence commutations for people at high risk from COVID-19. Compassionate release, an early parole granted to the terminally ill, allows people to rejoin their families at the end of their lives, while sentence commutations are shortened prison terms that are within the powers of the governor to grant. While many prisons and jails released prisoners early at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, their population numbers have started climbing again, and there has been no concerted effort to release those in danger from the virus as a preventative measure.
When I was working on a piece last semester about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on incarcerated populations, I heard horror stories about the experiences of people in Alameda County Santa Rita Jail both from people inside Santa Rita published through the website Santa Rita Jail Solidarity as well by talking to representatives of the group Oakland Abolition and Solidarity that works to support people incarcerated at the jail.
An image that continues to haunt me is an explanation of how temperature checks were conducted on people who showed symptoms of COVID-19: Because they were being quarantined in solitary confinement units, prisoners would have to kneel on the concrete ground and stick their fingers through the food tray slots in the doors to have their temperatures checked.
This exemplifies a common thread that runs through every account of prison or jail in the U.S. that I have encountered, and that is what can be referred to as a “culture of cruelty.” Philosopher Henry Giroux explains it as referring to a trend in U.S. society to deem some groups “utterly redundant and disposable, waste products of a society that no longer considers them of any value.” Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist and organizer, extends this analysis to incarceration specifically. Kaba claims that mass incarceration is enabled through our collective desensitization — the ability of Americans to avoid our own complicity in the caging and dehumanization of millions of our peers. The people locked up become “criminals,” not human beings with families and lives and hopes and dreams. We don’t have to grapple with how quickly we discount human lives because we have been conditioned not to see some people as human.
The culture of cruelty in our jails and prisons runs deeper than inadequate responses to the current pandemic. From California to Georgia, reports of treatment on the inside point to an approach to incarceration characterized by callous disrespect for human life. “People think that an individual is incarcerated so they should have nothing coming,” Savage-Rodriguez explains.
This is not a phenomenon that is unique to incarceration. Our culture of cruelty is one that is deeply rooted in ableist logic — rather than trying to fix society to help people navigate it, we are taught to exclude those who don’t fit our image of the perfect citizen. Locking people up rather than addressing their needs and the needs of those victimized by crime is the same cruel logic that created institutions rather than making a society accessible to disabled people, and it often impacts the same marginalized groups that are considered disposable under a carceral capitalist framework for society.
We don’t have to grapple with how quickly we discount human lives because we have been conditioned not to see some people as human.
Without dismantling our ableist culture of cruelty, it will be impossible to challenge the dehumanization of a system that condemns thousands to death traps during a pandemic. We need to first view prisoners as humans, flawed like everyone else, but still people with inherent value and deserving of care. That’s where disability justice comes in.
“Disability Justice is a vision and practice of a yet-to-be, a map that we create with our ancestors and our great grandchildren onward, in the width and depth of our multiplicities and histories, a movement towards a world in which every body and mind is known as beautiful,” Patty Berne states in an essay on the Sins Invalid website. Berne is a co-founder of Sins Invalid, a Bay Area collective that describes itself as a “disability justice based performance project.” In the essay, Berne lays out what she considers to be the main principles of disability justice.
One of the guiding questions of the movement, she says, is “‘How do we move together’ – as people with mixed abilities, multiracial, multi-gendered, mixed class, across the orientation spectrum – where no body/mind is left behind.” This idea is one of radical inclusivity, of creating communities of care where people are not forsaken at a point where society deems them too high a cost to continue supporting, but are instead always treated as humans with inherent value and something to contribute.
Communities of care are the antithesis of a carceral society, and this is why disability justice is an integral piece to any vision of prison abolition. Not just because of the obvious connection that disabled people are highly impacted by prisons, policing and other punitive institutions and therefore are invested in their discontinuation, but because disability justice offers a framework for building an abolitionist future. Communities of care are premised on the idea that everyone has something to contribute, but also that no one can go through life alone; everyone needs some level of care and support, and communities should be tasked with ensuring people receive what they need to live their life to their fullest potential. Investing in people’s futures rather than excluding people who are seen as a burden on society goes against what our society is set up to do, and creating a world where no one is shoved to the margins requires a society that is grounded in appreciating the value of every human life.
“Everybody is redeemable. Everybody has the ability to grow and change,” states Savage-Rodriguez. Previously incarcerated herself, Savage-Rodriguez now works with CCWP to help women who find themselves incarcerated in similar circumstances gain opportunities for parole and release, arguing against society’s tendency to “throw away the key on everybody.” Many of the people championed by CCWP are mothers, grandmothers and people who are themselves victims of violence.
Disability justice offers us a path forward. Abolitionist thinker Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains abolition as “life in rehearsal” — a project that won’t be perfect the first time, but that requires continued commitment and constantly evolving and adapting ideas and approaches. Disability justice is part of the script we need to rehearse; creating a more caring world won’t happen overnight, but when it does, we will all be better for it.