Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors has been fighting for criminal justice reform since she was a teenager. Growing up, she witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of the criminal justice system and police brutality. Her older brother, who has mental health issues, has been cycling in and out of jail most of his adult life.
This exposure has motivated the artist and activist to pursue a decades-long fight to support the communities most directly affected by over-incarceration in Los Angeles, she says. She founded the advocacy group Dignity and Power Now in 2012, and then Black Lives Matter in 2013.
Now, as the coronavirus pandemic rages, there is a renewed urgency to Cullors’ efforts.
Health experts say jails are a petri dish for the spread of the virus and could lead to mass deaths as people are physically unable to separate themselves from one another. Los Angeles County has the largest jail system in the country, housing nearly 17,000 inmates.
In March, Cullors sprung into action, helping set up the COVID-19 Rapid Response in conjunction with the coalitions Reform L.A. Jails and Justice-LA, as well as a diverse team of more than 40 local and statewide organizations. The initiative asks the public to sign petitions demanding that Los Angeles County officials relieve overcrowding in jails and limit arrests to help protect inmates, who’re essentially trapped together amid this deadly viral outbreak.
The move comes shortly after her criminal justice campaign notched a big win with the 2020 countywide ballot passage of Measure R, which brings in more powers to independently investigate corruption in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and includes a plan to improve mental health treatment in the county.
HuffPost spoke with Cullors about her campaigning and the effect the pandemic is having.
Paint a picture of what the conditions are like in L.A. County jails right now.
It’s terrible. Historically it’s been disgusting and filthy. If we’re going to leave some people inside, they should be protected. We are in contact with nurse practitioners and doctors working in the jails. They’re telling us that there is an unnecessary amount of people in the jails who are medically vulnerable and don’t pose any imminent danger to public safety. Some people are pregnant inside the women’s jail. There are people who are HIV positive. Even before COVID-19, the jail facility was not a place for so many of these people. And now, during this crisis, it’s even more glaringly obvious.
How has the coronavirus personally affected you and influenced your advocacy?
This coronavirus pandemic moment has crystallized why the jailing of so many human beings in Los Angeles County is inhumane. It has crystallized why we should be pushing for an entirely new system. It’s the reason why I am an abolitionist.
In these moments, I am so clear that the use of police, prisons and courts is not going to get us the results we want ― a place where people can be safe and a place where people can be loved.
Explain the demands the COVID-19 Rapid Response initiative is presenting to the California criminal justice system.
No. 1 is an early release. We have to reduce overcrowding and protect those most vulnerable. Next, reduce the arrests and booking ― things like drug arrests, sex work and status offenses ― people should not be taken into the jails for those offenses and definitely shouldn’t be taken to jail now. Additionally, improving custody conditions. Lastly, prioritizing people’s civil liberties and enhancing funding for community-based services.
“These moments of national crisis are often when we see our civil liberties put at stake.”
These moments of national crisis are often when we see our civil liberties put at stake, and we don’t want that to happen to those communities who are most impacted and marginalized.
We don’t want what’s happening in Cook County or Rikers Island. And to be frank, we’re ahead of it right now. (Chicago’s Cook County announced that more than 230 of their detainees in Cook County Jail have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. According to The New York Times, 167 inmates and 137 corrections staff and health workers at Rikers had tested positive for the virus by the end of March.)
What changes have taken place since you launched the initiative on March 26?
We had 17,000 prisoners just 2½ weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak really came to L.A., and now the numbers have dropped to about 13,710 because we’ve been able to safely decarcerate people. That’s primarily due to the demands that we’ve made as an organization and as a response team.
Many of our county Board of Supervisors have been pushing for the sheriff’s department to release people, but we live in a really terrible bureaucracy, and so many systems are in place that are barriers to getting people out.
Since the city’s stay-in-place order was launched, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office has continued to pursue arrests for petty crimes such as drinking in public, panhandling, loitering and drug possession. What do you think about this?
I think DA Jackie Lacey needs not to be DA of Los Angeles County anymore. As she runs against George Gascon, the entire community should be backing Gascon right now. I think that DA Lacey is heartless. The fact that she continues pushing cases during this pandemic, especially low-level cases, is criminal.
What do you hope for in the future of the criminal justice system, after COVID-19?
When you look at Cook County or Rikers Island, I would argue that this is now an opportunity for counties to look at decarceration as the model and as an alternative to incarceration and start earmarking dollars for those alternatives. We need more beds outside of jails. We need more facilities and more infrastructure.
If we do this right and get as many people out of jail as possible, it will create more infrastructure for us to push people into the community-based services they deserve. I think it’s an opportunity right now for our county to earmark more dollars for our community-based services.
I think if we do this wrong and keep more people inside jails as the coronavirus spreads through, we’re going to see a lot of people dying, a lot of sick people. It won’t just be incarcerated people, it will be staff, and those staff are going to bring the virus home. I think we need to be really quick about how we move now. We cannot move at the slowness of bureaucracy. We need to move at the quickness of human life.
CORRECTION: the piece was amended on April 7 to update the number of people incarcerated in L.A. It is is now 13,710 and not 14,500 as previously stated.
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