Prisons Are the Pandemic

The Supreme Court forced the state of California to reduce its prison population by 25,000 people because extreme overcrowding and medical neglect constituted cruel and unusual punishment. While the 2017 state prison population of 115,000 is an improvement, abolitionists would argue that the forces that pressured the courts to side with prisoners against the state were not just the lawsuit itself, but movement work on the inside, which challenged popular conceptions and the dehumanization of incarcerated people and revealed their willingness to fight for dignity. Furthermore, California’s rapidly aging prison population, 23% of which is aged 50 or older, is deeply vulnerable to abuse and medical neglect. Reforms are a stepping stone to liberation, a strategy Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “survival pending abolition”. 

Despite immeasurable losses, abolitionist struggles are consistently winning both public support and tangible change. Organizations like the California Prison Moratorium Project built powerful coalitions of environmentalists, farmworkers, and immigrant rights organizers that struggled against “police, prisons, and pesticides” but also envisioned vibrant equitable communities. Davis supported the CCWP campaign to reduce the population of overcrowded women’s prisons and wrote an op-ed with Fresno member Windy Click in support of their Freedom Rally at Chowchilla Central Women’s Facility, reprinted in The Fire Inside alongside commentary from CCWF member Joy Cordes.

The Fire Inside Issue 48 Spring/Summer 2013

Courtesy of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. 

Build Strong Communities Not Prisons and Jails!

Build Strong Communities Not Prisons and Jails! Poster for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) by Melanie Cervantes. Retrieved from

As organizing forced the state to turn from prison construction to jail construction, abolitionists continued to fight back. Only last year, the movement won a pivotal victory and stopped the construction of a new jail in Los Angeles. On July 7th 2020 the Board of Supervisors took the next step towards the horizon of abolition by voting unanimously to approve a motion directing county departments and the Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup to plan to close the "dangerous and dungeon-like" Mens Central Jail within a year. The motion embraces divestment from jails and investment in communities, 

“In order to meet the needs to support the success of those being released, and to prevent future law enforcement contact,” according to the motion, “the County must commit costs saved from closing MCJ – including eliminating the need for renovations and the expensive attempts to provide medical and mental health care within a facility that was not designed for such care – to reinvesting into our most disenfranchised communities and increasing access to basic need and the county’s system of care, to further reduce the county’s historic reliance on its jail system to meet its residents’ health and service-related needs and embrace a new vision for the county’s future.”

Despite these victories, the COVID-19 epidemic makes the deadly nature of the prison system blatantly clear as the virus is exacerbated by medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, and crowded dorms often full of senior citizens. Abolitionist historian Dan Berger argues that politicians’ failure to commute sentences and save lives is indicative of a wider commitment to the logic of the prison system and the idea that “violent offenders” are threats to public safety. “Even the most liberal of U.S. governors would rather risk their prisons turning into mass graves than offer the faintest of admissions that mass incarceration is unnecessary for public safety.” The COVID-19 outbreak in jails, prisons, and detention facilities is a symptom of a system which encourages ruthless punishment and social control at the cost of justice and public health. Amidst this crisis, CCWP members are still ensuring that the voices of incarcerated people like 68 year old grandmother and survivor Patricia Wright and 44 year old April Harris, who spent a month in solitary confinement after testing positive, reach beyond the walls. You can learn more about their stories in the exhibit "More than a Statistic." 

Prisons Are the Pandemic