As an advocate, I support people and families going through the criminal justice system. Several advocates and organizers have sounded and continue to sound the alarm about the COVID-19 danger in the jail and prison system.
I live in Knoxville, Tennessee and am a Co-founder of Community Defense of East Tennessee (CDET). CDET is a community group that supports and empowers families to actively participate in their defense.
We have compiled a report “Give Me Liberty or Give Us COVID-19 Death” that demonstrates why the jail will be the next epicenter for COVID-19. Just like what’s happening in Rikers Island and so many other jails across America, we have highlighted how social distancing and many other CDC recommendations cannot take place in a crowded prison or jail. We also highlight the fact that our county, like many others, has limited medical capacity and staff. If an outbreak occurs in the jail here, it will overrun the local hospitals and medical personnel, becoming a significant public health crisis.
With the looming peak of cases set to hit within the coming week, we make the point that around 75-80% of those incarcerated in our jail have not been convicted and are only imprisoned because they cannot afford bail or what I like to call “Ransom.” You have human bodies sitting in a cage not because they are guilty, but because they are poor. This is the case around the country, thousands in jail due to their inability to pay, and because they will not give in to District Attorneys like Knox County’s D.A. Charme Allen’s game of plea and you’ll be free.
The predatory practice of plea and you’ll go free is where the DA is using the threat of COVID- 19 to pressure incarcerated people to take a plea of guilty to be released from jail. This unethical practice emphasizes the oppression of the system and how it’s used to prey on the most vulnerable among us. When talking to the fiance of a man incarcerated in Knox County, we were told he was writing goodbye letters to his children because he was not sure he would make it out alive.
The State of Tennessee Supreme Court has ordered local judges to implement ways to reduce the jail population. The 8 criminal court judges of Knoxville signed an order requiring Knox County Sheriff to cite and release on all misdemeanors and class low-level felonies. The same should apply to those sitting in jail due to their inability to pay. To continue this course of action puts the lives of everyone that comes into contact with the criminal justice system, and especially the jail, at risk.
To hold people in jail, a physical structure that cannot accommodate safe social distancing and will not even provide enough personal protective equipment for all, is irresponsible while putting jail staff, medical staff, and the general public in unnecessary danger.
As far a public safety is concerned, a majority of those incarcerated in the Knoxville detention facility are there for misdemeanors. Any public safety concern raised by the action of releasing those incarcerated is dwarfed by the current COVID-19 health risk. The current cite and release in Knox County applies to all misdemeanors and B felonies and below with some exceptions.
There are hundreds of thousands of families who are worried about their loved ones during this time across the Nation. Their loved ones did not receive a death sentence, so why are those in charge motivated by greed and D.A.s that are trying to maintain a specific conviction rate willing to give them one?
I speak out for those who are forgotten, those who are digging the graves of the victims of this virus, those who are being paid $6 an hour to make PPE supplies for those on the frontlines, and the families who are frightened and feel hopeless in the effort to protect their loved ones. People who are incarcerated have people who love and care for them, and that love will not be stopped by a cage.
We cannot and will not forget them. We cannot and will not abandon them. As a Muslim, I am required to read all the holy books. In the Bible it says:
Let this be written for the generation to come, so that a people not yet created may praise the LORD. For He looked down from the heights of His sanctuary; the LORD gazed out from heaven to earth to hear a prisoner’s groaning, to release those condemned to death.
Imani Mfalme is a Knoxville, Tennessee Organizer/ Activist and Co-founder of Community Defense of East Tennessee, National Trainer for Silicon Valley De-Bug and Participatory Defense Network, Member of the National Council of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls. She may be reached at Imani@SiliconValleyDebug.org