Fighting for Prisoner Rights: Prisons, Abolition and COVID-19

Jodie, a graduate of our most recent Bootcamp, shares her experience campaigning for prisoner rights and abolition in the midst of COVID-19. She also tells us about her new project, 'Our Empty Chair':

Content warning: this blog includes references to imprisonment, illness, and sexual violence.

What motivated you to begin campaigning around imprisonment?

My journey started with my personal experience. I grew up visiting family members, particularly my dad, in prison. Another close relative of mine is a survivor of sexual violence. That really shaped the way I view the justice system and the change I want to see within it.

My dad was a single dad. He’s my best friend. When he was sent to prison, it was incredibly traumatic and I couldn’t speak to anyone about it. After a while I found myself saying, “Oh, my dad is in prison… he’s a really good person though.” I’ve only recently stopped doing that. I don’t like the words ‘offender’ or ‘criminal’. They are completely dehumanising.

It’s a cliché, but I like it: “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I always felt that it was a massive injustice that my dad was taken away from me and put into prison. I’ve always used that to reflect on other things I’ve seen happening, but it isn’t easy. 

When you are talking about sexual violence and prison abolition, it can be really uncomfortable. But I know that my relative who is a survivor was completely disempowered by the criminal justice system. I feel that ultimately, the criminal justice system isn’t set up to do any good for anyone. Violence is still happening, all of the time. The system isn’t doing what society hopes it should do. 

How has COVID-19 affected the work you are doing at Women in Prison?

It came as a shock. We usually have more time to discuss campaign strategy and build our messaging. However, the impact of COVID-19 on the prison system meant there was a sudden urgency to what we were doing and what we were calling for.

Reports started coming out of prisons being cleared for storage of bodies, and the impossibility of self-isolating in a prison when people are still sharing cells. We had to respond quickly.

We were really conscious of being one organisation amongst many that were calling for the release of people from prison. If there wasn’t a unified campaign, this important demand could have got lost. That’s why, together with Inquest, we pushed for an open letter. We addressed the letter to the Prime Minister, and called for the release of people from prison as a matter of public safety.

Tell us more about the open letter and how COVID-19 has brought abolitionist principles to the fore.

I worked on the open letter with Women in Prisons and Inquest. I thought it was really important to make the case for decarceration rather than saying there should be a hierarchy of people who should be released first. I’m a firm believer that if you are relying on the government to meet your demands, it is much better to be ambitious at the first point of contact. Our radical call drew hundreds of signatories (see here to see everyone who signed it). This will pressure the state to properly consider the issue for the first time. 

Outside of campaigning around imprisonment, it has been really exciting to see mutual aid groups start up all over the country. Mutual aid draws upon many abolitionist principles through looking creatively about how we, as members of our communities, can build systems of care to help eachother out during this crisis.  

In terms of prison abolition, steps have been taken in countries like Italy, the US and Iran to reduce prison populations as a matter of safety. Prisons are overcrowded and medical experts have said that this will lead to prisons becoming epicentres for the virus. This is not only extremely harmful for people in prison, but for communities in general. The virus spreads much quicker if you are constantly concentrating large numbers of people, with staff coming and going, in one place.

Some people are calling for the release of low-risk people in prison. This is a positive starting point, but this crisis demands more ambitious steps in order to save lives. It’s also important to recognise that our Government’s notion of risk is heavily politicised and particularly racialised. There are certainly specific groups within prison who are at increased risk from the virus, such as pregnant women, elderly, and some LGBT+ people. It’s important to acknowledge this, but not at the point of deciding who should be released. When you start to decide who gets to survive a pandemic and who doesn’t, that becomes really harmful within itself.

What do you see as some of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 on the families of people imprisoned?

The little bit of control you feel you have over the situation is taken away. The uncertainty is particularly difficult for children experiencing parental imprisonment. I used to cling on to the hope of a visit to see my dad every weekend.

Outside of the physical impact of COVID-19, the biggest source of anxiety and upset is the loss of contact. When will I next see my parent? When will they call? When my dad was in prison, he used to call me every Tuesday evening. 

When dealing with having a loved one serving a prison sentence, you develop a routine. You might visit them every 2 weeks. All of the little things you do to support yourself and maintain the contact are completely impossible. All prison visits have been suspended until further notice. 

With a small group of friends, I started a project called Our Empty Chair, that seeks to share stories of people kept apart by prisons and detention centres. People I have been speaking to have told me, for example, that their routines have changed from seeing their loved one every day, to only having 15 minutes on the phone with them shared between multiple family members. It’s really worrying.

To support Jodie’s work, follow and share the stories from @OurEmptyChair

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