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Apr 28, 20

Pittsburgh Demands Abolition During Coronavirus (and Forever)

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An analysis of Pittsburgh’s local jail amidst the coronavirus epidemic and a short report on ongoing abolitionist activity.

Over the past many weeks, community members in Pittsburgh have been organizing to demand the release of people who are in prisons, detention centers and jails in Pittsburgh and around the country. Between phone-zaps and demonstrations, we won’t stop until every cage is empty.

Autonomous groups have been organizing protests outside of the jail and the courthouse:

PHOTO: NATE GUIDRY

PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM

This coming week, organizers in Pittsburgh will also be holding a virtual abolitionist vigil and grief ritual for people all around the country. To find more information about joining an at-home vigil please follow @abolitionistvigil on Instagram.

A CASE FOR ABOLITION

Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) has always been a death trap — it does not take a deadly pandemic to put people behind bars at risk. But the coronavirus has brought an increased risk for death and disease inside the local jail.

National crises endanger the most vulnerable among us, and there is literally no worse place to spend a pandemic than inside a concentrated detention facility without adequate medical care. Between daily reports of egregious medical neglect in ACJ, and the COVID-19 related deaths that are multiplying in detention facilities across the country, we fear even more preventable deaths inside ACJ.

The (far too small) population decrease at ACJ begs even those who believe in the justice system to ask, why were those who have been released ever in detention?

The coronavirus is helping to reveal a truth that is at once obvious and obscured — prisons and jails do nothing to preserve humanity or the safety of our communities. The criminal legal system and the paradigm that comes with it, now more than ever, is failing to justify continued incarceration.

Yet, the local jail is still full because judges and other power-holders’ jobs rely on the myth that people need to stay incarcerated to ensure public safety. This myth now has coronavirus-tained holes but it still needs to be dismantled.

The serious lack of administrative response to the coronavirus epidemic has shown that the courts and legislative bodies do not care for the lives of people inside ACJ. As of April 17th, there are four positive cases of coronavirus inside the jail, and likely many more cases that are under-reported or under-tested. As the number of positive cases grows, very little is changing.

There are 1,600 people whose requests for clemency have been rejected, or whose health is being willfully ignored by officials. The binary between “violent” and “non-violent” crimes, and “low-risk” and “high-risk” is arbitrary and absurd. There are no transparent boundaries for how these categories are determined, and the vast majority of people inside the jail have committed what most would consider victimless crimes. Besides, there is no individual violence that matches the violence of willful incarceration during a deadly pandemic.

Instead of passing a motion which would ensure immediate release for hundreds of people, judges continue to use racist pretrial risk assessment tools (PRATS) to review each case, one by one, and decide whether the individuals are scored as low-risk — a process far too slow, and far too discriminatory, since the vast majority of people are still not up for release.

One glaring statistic (of many) illustrates this point. As of April 9th, 59% of people in the jail were detained by Allegheny County Adult Probation, which means that they are being held for violating conditions of probation of a crime which they were previously convicted of. Despite this absurdity, 89% (519) were considered moderate or “high-risk” based on their PRAT score. These 519 people are being held in deadly conditions because a PRAT and a judge determined them unsafe. Meanwhile, they were arrested for a petty violation during probation. Let’s get this straight: The jail is unsafe and poses a threat to community health, not the individuals inside of it.

Judge Kimberly Clark herself, willfully and articulately admitted in a letter to the Jail Oversight Board that people’s health and lives are less important than maintaining business as usual at the courts and jails:

In some cases, even an inmate with compromised health issues or an inmate who has actually tested positive for COVID-19, may have to remain in the jail if the circumstances warrant continued confinement.

Later in the letter she calls for sympathy and support for the warden and staff, again neglecting the true people at risk — those who are detained without access to adequate medical care and unable to go home.

While it is disgusting that people are being held in a deadly facility, it is unsurprising that the decarceration initiatives have been kept to a minimum. Mass release would expose the public secret, obvious yet obscured, that abolitionists have known all along — incarceration is unnecessary, ineffective, and an appalling way to deal with harm.

The jobs of hundreds and the myth of the state as a protective apparatus depend on continued incarceration. Without it, the jails, the courts, and even police would be exposed as malicious and obsolete.

It’s important to remember that there are human beings behind the institutions who choose to keep people inside of the jail, at risk for disease and death. We must be unrelenting in our demands that authorities pass motions to #FreeThemAll. We must demand an end to arrests, sentencing and incarceration, for the duration of the coronavirus and permanently.

Close ACJ immediately, send our people home!

To donate to an abolitionist bail fund that tries to bring as many people home from ACJ as possible, go here.

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