April 22, 2020
Philly We Rise Power Series
A State of Urgency: Releasing Incarcerated Individuals in the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Shanayah Wyche, Philly We Rise Intern
“A few years ago, while at the youth study center, my son caught tuberculosis. Even though he was treated, his immune system will always be compromised. He is now at CFCF, which is the same kind of setting as the youth study center. He has a detainer and a $300 bail, but I don’t know where the motion is on his case. I am afraid that he will catch the coronavirus and his immune system will not be enough to fight it off. He can barely get an inhaler for his asthma and the jail only has 4 ventilators, all which are in use. I can’t see him because they don’t have video visitation for State Road and I don’t know if he’s ok. I can’t sleep, I can’t think. I don’t know if they have masks or if they are even able to wash their hands. Nothing. When he caught TB, DHS called me and said ‘sorry’. I want to know if my son dies from this virus, is Mayor Kenney going to send me a tweet saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss’? I would be devastated.”
These are the words of Rashena Carter, a Philadelphia mother whose 20-year-old son is currently trapped in a detention center during the COVID-19 crisis. On Saturday, April 4th, she shared this story during a virtual town hall hosted by Philly African American clergy. The event brought together pastors, City Councilmembers, the District Attorney, organizers, currently incarcerated people and family members to discuss the conditions in city jails where the coronavirus is rapidly spreading.
The town hall was a part of the #FreeOurPeople campaign, a citywide movement to get people out of jail during the COVID-19 crisis. The event highlighted the fear and uncertainty many are facing in and out of the system. Ms. Carter’s story was just one amongst others that brought a human face to the painful reality of those who have loved ones in jail.
Jay, who is battling cervical and ovarian cancer while at Riverside Correctional Facility, spoke about the poor conditions in the jails.
“My bail is $1,000 and now the coronavirus is here, it’s a little terrifying,” he said at the town hall. “They stopped all the visits … right now they only let us out five at a time and we can only use the phone and the showers … It is very overwhelming and devastating for a lot of women in this unit … My message is let us come home. Let us deal with this epidemic with our families.”
Jay is now part of a class action lawsuit, lead by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, against the city of Philadelphia over its failed response to COVID-19 in the jails.
Prioritizing People Over Politics
When news broke that the coronavirus would spread to the United States, organizers across the city knew that jails would be hit hard unless Mayor Kenney and other officials proactively implemented emergency orders to release some of the jail and juvenile justice center populations. Unfortunately, Philadelphia lagged behind, while other cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh implemented large-scale release efforts. On March 12, the #No215Jail coalition sent a list of demands to the city to take preventative measures. Their concerns were not answered, and just two weeks later the first cases of COVID-19 began to appear in Philadelphia. Now, there are over 100 confirmed cumulative cases of COVID-19 in city jails and one confirmed death.
This lack of action prompted the #No215Jail coalition — which have long mobilized for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia — to take rapid direct action in pressuring Mayor Kenney and the First Judicial District to step up and release as many of our neighbors as possible from Philadelphia jails.
Members of #FreeOurPeople gather at city hall in car-rally action to demand the mass release of incarcerated individuals from jail.
This includes those held on cash bail amounts they can’t afford, anyone held on a detainer for technical violations of probation, and those currently sentenced who are close to the end of either parole or a county sentence. They further call on the courts to implement an immediate review process for all people currently in detention, including youth who are awaiting trial, held because of a probation violation, or are in detention because they are awaiting fostercare placement.
Mark Houldin, a defense attorney in PA, has been working with the #No215Jail coalition to demand immediate decarceration. For Mark, the urgency to release individuals from prison is just as urgent as asking individuals to stay home. He is disheartened by the lack of urgency from the courts.
“What we have seen over the past couple of weeks is that there has been no urgency to hear motions, in fact they were denying motions on the basis that our concerns were not an emergency, as if COVID-19 was not enough of a basis” said Houldin. “A case by case approach to release folks when you look at 4,000 people in city jails alone – who are presumed innocent or serving really minor sentences – is probably not going to work in a pandemic with emergency action, but it really is not going to work when the city has wasted two weeks with the courts doing nothing.”
It is almost impossible to social distance in jails, as pointed out several times by Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy, and most buildings lack proper sanitation. These circumstances combined with poor healthcare access and that many incarcerated people have preexisting conditions makes it a disaster scenario. The exponential growth of COVID-19 at Rikers Island in New York City and Cook County Jail in Chicago underscore that tragic reality.
It is also important to realize that many folks in jail right now are there for reasons contrary to what people might think. “A lot of people in county jails should not be there. They are there illegally on a bail they cannot afford,” said Houldin.
Jails differ from prisons. The vast majority of people in jail are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. Many are in jail because they do not have the money to pay bail, or are being detained on a charge of violating conditions of probation or parole. Those who are convicted are serving short sentences of typically one year or less. According to a 2018 report by the Philadelphia Bail Fund and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, the average bail amount in Philadelphia is roughly $25,000 and 10 percent or $2,500 is required for release. That’s more than most families in Philadelphia, America’s poorest big city, can afford, and white people are twice as likely to pay this than those that are Black.
We know the COVID-19 crisis is already disproportionately affecting Black people in and out of the jail population, it has exposed a pre-existing public health crisis that has long denied black and brown people the care they need.
It is Time to Act Now
Luz, an Afro-Latinx Puerto Rican citizen and community leader who shared her story in the clergy virtual town hall, was released from Riverside Correctional Facility two weeks ago. This victory didn’t come from the actions of the courts and Mayor Kenney, it was the result of mobilization by the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, an organization that raises money to bail out individuals who cannot afford bail themselves. We thank organizers of the #FreeOurPeople campaign, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and the Philadelphia Bail Fund for doing the work Mayor Kenney and the Judicial courts are failing to do. But these organizers can only do so much, and if our elected judges do not move faster to implement mass release, conditions right now could get worse.
The first death of a person who was incarcerated has already been reported. Just last week, Yvonne Harris, a Black woman in her 40s who was due to be released from Riverside Correctional Facility in August, passed away. Judges denied her the chance to be released early in this public health crisis and to be safe at home with her family. This is why we stand with those demanding mass release. It is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of life and death. If Judges stay resistant, we can only fear that these death reports in jails will increase. What does that say to families? What does that say to the public? It is time for the courts to act. It is time for Mayor Kenney to take executive action. It is time to #FREEOURPEOPLE.
Photo of Cara Tratner, organizer with Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and Luz, a formerly incarcerated person and key community leader in the #FreeOurPeople campaign, protesting at the second car action on city hall – April 10, 2020
TAKE ACTION: Join the to Free Incarcerated People during the COVID-19 Crisis
Header Image: #FreeOurPeople Graphic designed by Shebani Rao.
March 25, 2020
Philly We Rise Power Series
A Call For Respect: Philly Workers Take Action in the Wake of COVID-19
By Shanayah Wyche, Philly We Rise Intern
The COVID-19 outbreak has revealed just how broken our country’s social safety nets are. Millions of Americans are struggling to navigate our country’s inadequate health and labor systems. In the midst of this intense moment, communities have come together to build powerful and large-scale organizing campaigns to support those who are the hardest hit. We’d like to take a moment to focus in on how Philadelphia workers are uniting and organizing during this unprecedented time.
Protecting the Backbone of Our City
The call to shut down all nonessential businesses has left thousands of workers in our city in peril. Mass amounts of people have been laid off or furloughed indefinitely, and many of those who are still employed are working at the frontlines of the crisis, as healthcare workers or in dangerous low-wage positions, at grocery stores, convenience shops and delivery services. These low-wage workers, who are now putting their lives on the line to keep our city functioning, have historically had little to no labor protections. Now, these same workers are coming together to demand dignity, real safety and expanded labor protections.
Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (PDWA), a network of house cleaners, nannies and caretakers that works for respect, recognition and labor standards, is one of the organizations at the front of the fight.
PDWA has joined together with local unions, labor groups and community organizations to demand that the city implement emergency legislation that will ensure safety and protection for all workers. The two major demands being proposed highlight the struggles of two subset labor groups: formal and informal workers.
The first demand calls on City Council to expand the Paid Sick Days law to meet the needs of this moment. The expanded legislation calls for an increase in employee paid leave to 112 hours or just over two weeks. This change would protect those who get sick, those sent home due to the citywide shutdown, and those forced to take time off to take care of children during the school closures, among other circumstances. The second demand calls for protection of workers that fall out of legislative boundaries, such as independent contractors, nannies and undocumented gig workers. The collective of workers demands that the city create a COVID-19 emergency fund that would provide financial relief to low-wage, informal laborers.
Under these two major demands, the coalition believes the emergency legislation should also include: guaranteed return to the same job, continuation of job-based health insurance, and affordable testing in ICE-free health facilities, among other policy proposals. Read the full list of demands here.
Philly Workers For Dignity is another coalition calling on the city and state to bail out workers. Philly Workers for Dignity is a collective of domestic, formal, and informal workers coming together to fight for workers’ dignity and the right to organize. In the wake of COVID-19, the group has called attention to the contradictions in the way the federal government has prioritized corporations over individuals, highlighting the Trump administration’s readiness to bail out big business while leaving the low-wage workers to fend for themselves. Through the length of the pandemic, Philly Workers for Dignity is demanding legislation that includes free testing and treatment that protects undocumented workers, a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and layoffs, and reimbursement of lost wages.
Nicole Kligerman, Director of Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, views this as an important moment for city officials to radically rethink worker and social policies.
“Massive numbers of people have lost their jobs and do not know when they are coming back or how to pay for food, rent, or utilities. There’s also large numbers of people in informal businesses and workplaces, like domestic workers, facing concerns. Parents who are at home do not need nannies and employers concerned for their pockets are cutting house cleaners,” said Kligerman.
“At the same time, people in work are not receiving material protections and being put in harm’s way. Workers need financial and public health protections and widespread testing. Organizers and laborers are demanding emergency aid that could result in permanent policies while supporting each other to protect ourselves collectively from the next disaster.”
It Takes All Forms of Community Togetherness
During this pandemic,PDWA and other worker rights’ groups have seen increasing stress and anxiety experienced by individuals who battle mental health, have difficulty with isolation, or have no certainty when they will return to work. Along with emergency legislative resolutions, this needs to be a time where organizations and individuals are providing community support and resources to the best of their ability.
PDWA has a committee dedicated to distributing material aid and technology training during this time. They have trained members on how to use Zoom and provide individual community support for folks who are facing depression because of isolation and job halts, letting them know they are not alone during this time.
“Workers’ rights ultimately are people’s fundamental ability to provide for themselves and their families and to stay healthy. As long as the system is set up to be dependent on our employers for food and health insurance we will continue to face a crisis in an increasingly changing labor market where so many people are gig workers and independent contractors falling out of the social safety net. We must continue to all work together to radically rethink how we help everyone meet their basic needs.” said Kligerman.
In hopes elected officials respond to the demands of low-wage workers and step into leadership, the coalition of workers rights’ groups is holding a virtual town hall tomorrow, March 26, at 6:00 PM. They are inviting all council members and the mayor to hear from different workers about how this crisis has impacted them. There will be different virtual rooms for English, Spanish and, hopefully ASL, so that everyone is heard and able to speak to representatives directly. There will be a prepared agenda. All workers are encouraged to RSVP.
TAKE ACTION to Protect Philly Workers During COVID-19!
- Tune into tomorrow’s virtual town hall, share your story, and to support thousands of Philly workers!
- Sign the coalition’s petition that lays out how the the city can take action to protect the all workers during this moment and beyond.
- Sign Philly Workers for Dignity’s Petition that challenges the status quo and demands immediate action from local officials.
- Donate to the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Coronavirus Care Fund. The group’s goal is to raise $4 million to disburse to domestic workers in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Support Organizations Providing Mutual Aid & Community Relief
There are large numbers of homeless teens, individuals battling with substance abuse, individuals without internet access and more facing increasing concerns during this public health crisis. Here are a few organizations who could use additional help as they are supporting the community:
- Donate to Guiding Stars, a non-profit youth organization that is currently keeping their center open so homeless youth can have food, a place to stay, and a hot shower. Year-round the organization focuses on juvenile justice, health & wellness, college readiness and professionalism, and holistic evidence-based sex education. They are also always looking for volunteers! Contact Kimberly Reese, Founder & CEO of Guiding Stars, at (215) 406-5101 or through the Facebook page for more information.
- Donate to CleanSlate, a national organization dedicated to providing access to addiction treatment. They have resources to prevent overdose death and provide education to the homeless community, among other services. The Port Richmond & South Philly locations are currently accepting donations of hand sanitizer, personal care items, non-perishable items, and clothing. Contact Brooke Feldman, Center Manager of CleanSlate Outpatient Services, at (215) 433-1855 for more information.
- Here is a Philadelphia COVID-19 Resource guide for you, your family, and to share with other individuals.
- Philly We Rise’s parent organization, Movement Alliance Project (MAP), is fighting to get everyone affordable, accessible and reliable internet access during the COVID crisis. If you or someone you know has been struggling to get or stay online, please fill out their survey here.
March 20, 2020
We are so excited to announce our latest initiative, Philly We Rise Power Series, a collection of articles diving into some of the most prominent issues in Philadelphia, from gun violence to rent control to immigration. In this series, we analyze the issues, speak with the organizations at the helm of the fights and let you know how you can get involved. Plus, in an upcoming article we will focus in on the organizing efforts around COVID-19, which has brought to the forefront some of our nation’s weaknesses around accessible and affordable healthcare, workers’ rights and the availability to take time off, and internet access and the digital divide.
We launched this project in response to your feedback from the Philly We Rise community survey. We heard you when you asked for more information about the issues in our communities and how they intersect with local politics.
This work is led by our small team at PWR and our incredible intern. Additionally, it is only possible through collaboration with the movement community in Philadelphia. You can support the ongoing work of Philly We Rise and the Power series by donating.
Please reach out to us here if there’s a topic that you’re curious about and would like us to highlight. We also encourage you to contact us if you’re part of an organization that’s currently working on a campaign in Philadelphia.
Keep your eye out for our first article, coming out soon, about March for Our Lives and their work to combat gun violence in Philadelphia.
Mariam, Philly We Rise Lead
Shanayah, Philly We Rise Intern