On Sunday afternoon, 45 people incarcerated at Rikers Island released a statement declaring that they would not be leaving their rooms for work or meals due to the jail’s inadequate response to the coronavirus outbreak in New York. The reasons given for the strike included a lack of personal cleaning supplies, preexisting overcrowded living conditions, and the disconnection of the facility’s phones on Sunday morning. Their demands were simple and reasonable: All people over the age of 50 with at-risk conditions, or with less than a year’s sentence, should be released immediately. It’s two days later now, and nothing has meaningfully changed.
The Rikers strike stands as the latest effort taken by incarcerated people to bring attention to the conditions faced during the pandemic by America’s prison population, currently clocking in around 2.3 million. In New Jersey, people being held at the Essex County Jail, Hudson County Jail, and privately operated Elizabeth Detention Center went on a hunger strike starting last Wednesday, calling out Immigration and Customs Enforcement for needlessly detaining people during the pandemic and for the conditions in the jails. “We should at least have some hand sanitizer, some wipes, some type of spray, and we rarely get any of that,” a person detained by ICE at the Hudson County Jail told The New Republic last week. “There’s barely soap, there’s barely toilet tissue. And they’ve got this new system in the bathroom where you’re only allowed to flush the toilet twice per hour.”
America is seeing in real time how much human misery our current system both produces and tolerates. And while many local and state officials have decided to release at-risk people to thin the crowds inside our jails and prisons, there are millions of people who are still locked away in facilities ripe for an outbreak.
And many of them are working through the pandemic. While nearly every jail and prison in the nation moved swiftly to ban family visitations in an apparent effort to limit community spread, prison work shifts across the country have carried on uninterrupted. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo boasted two weeks ago about the production of hand sanitizer “made conveniently by the state of New York.” The sanitizer was in fact being made by incarcerated people who were started at $0.16 per hour. As we’ve seen before, incarcerated people were turned into emergency service workers—their task no different or less necessary than grocery workers’ or delivery drivers’—yet their health concerns have seldom been considered by an industry that makes $50 million off their labor.