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We like to see things to believe them. But what happens when racist, violent, state-sponsored abuses happen in a place with no cameras?
Last summer the streets of America teemed with hope and rage. We watched George Floyd die after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The video footage—thrown on the kindling of a pandemic, tanking economy, and hot summer—sparked an uprising, a demand for action against institutional and individual racism.
But when it comes to certain kinds of abuses, there are seldom cameras. In Prince George’s County Jail in Maryland, advocates allege that an uncontrolled outbreak of coronavirus, caused by the jail’s mismanagement, has escalated into unconscionable human rights violations. A group of people who are and were incarcerated in the jail are bringing a class action complaint against the jail, alleging that it has violated their constitutional rights.
“The jail’s actions fueled this outbreak,” the lawsuit claims, adding that “the prisoners housed there—predominantly pretrial detainees—are under a constant and substantial threat of contracting the disease, and those already infected receive grossly substandard medical treatment (if they receive treatment at all).”
In a statement to Glamour, a representative for the Department of Corrections refuted those claims, noting, “Since the start of the pandemic, the positivity rate in the facility has remained lower than that of the county,” adding that “every inmate who enters the facility is tested and those already in custody are checked daily for signs and symptoms” and that a court-approved health inspector described the jail as “clean.” But the plaintiffs stand by their lawsuit, and the county has entered into settlement negotiations with them.
It's hard to start a movement from behind bars. But the plaintiffs have help—a superhero squad of public defenders, civil rights leaders, formerly incarcerated activists, and one very famous singer—a group led by women. Their project, Gasping for Justice, asked celebrities to record themselves reading the testimonies of the people who are trapped in the jail, turning dry court documents into live, human cries for help. They hope that their voices will convey the humanity of the speakers who are imprisoned, away from the public.
Too many of us assume that inmates are perpetrators of injustice, not victims of injustice. Correctional facilities should offer paths for rehabilitation, but that’s not how American jails and prisons work, most of the time. Some want to believe that guilty people go to prison or jail for committing a crime, in order to prevent more harm. But a person who has not been convicted of a crime and is presumed innocent can be trapped in jail for months or even years because they can’t pay bail.
In fact, in the United States, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the Constitution states that slavery is legal in prisons. It’s not something high school history teachers tend to dwell on. But it’s the reason you see those shocking, seemingly “un-American” headlines, like last summer, when crews of prison inmates who are paid under $6 per hour to fight fires in California were depleted, because prisons were overrun with coronavirus. The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” It feels un-American, but it’s right there in our founding documents.
Prisons and jails around the country have become petri dishes in which incarcerated people are suffering penalties far beyond just captivity. As of March 23, almost 400,000 people in prisons had tested positive for COVID, according to The Marshall Project, which has been tracking the disease in prisons since March.
Glamour spoke to the women leading the Gasping for Justice campaign about their work defending one of the most marginalized groups of people in the country—work that’s punishing and distinctly unglamorous. They told us why the people in Prince George’s County Jail need us, badly, to be their voice.
Glamour: How do you find the will to do this hard, distressing work?
Olevia Boykin, attorney at Civil Rights Corps: We are in a pivotal point in a historic movement around the country. I think people are starting to see that all Black lives matter, and that includes incarcerated ones. We started Gasping for Justice to share these stories with the world, to shine a light on the crisis happening in this jail, and in jails across the country.
Fiona Apple: If you’ve suffered, you can be empathetic. And when you’re empathetic, it’s impossible to turn away. To be very honest, I think that the things that have happened in my life with sexual assault, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse—all these kinds of abuses by men, and some things that I am not allowed to talk about and some things that I have to lie about—it puts this anger in me that I can’t save myself. I couldn’t save myself but maybe helping or trying to help somebody else feels as close to saving yourself as you can ever get. Because if you can help them, it does make you feel better, even if it’s not your issue that was solved, it heals you. And I would presume to say that lots of other women probably come from a similar place, that you’ve experienced a lot, and you just don’t want to let bad things happen to other people. It brings a lot up when you see other people being ignored or people being disbelieved.
Why is this group of incarcerated people suing?
Katie Chamblee-Ryan, attorney at Civil Rights Corps: The vast majority of people in the jail are pretrial, so they have not been convicted of anything, they are legally innocent, and they have pending charges. For the majority of the pandemic, the jail has locked people down 23 hours a day—these are solitary confinement conditions. They get one hour out of their cell, some get even less. The hour could be in the middle of the night, and it is your only time when you can call your family, and your lawyer, and shower, and spend any time outside, and it’s the only time anyone will give you any cleaning materials to clean. This violates the Constitution. [A representative for the jail told Glamour: “During the peak of the pandemic, detainees received an hour of recreation time that rotated each day.”]
There is so much horrific abuse in the world. Can you explain why people should care about people who have been accused of crimes?
Qiana Johnson, executive director of Life After Release: I’m a formerly incarcerated person, so I get this question a lot. As a person who has been bailing out Black mamas in Prince George’s County for the past three years, I can tell you that out of 16 mamas that we bailed out last year, more than half of those cases were dropped with no further indication of those women reoffending.
Marguerite Lanaux, supervising attorney for the Prince George's County public defender’s office: I think it’s important to add that the majority of these cases are misdemeanors. We’re not talking about rapes and murders and carjackings! These are thefts, possessions of drugs—very simple misdemeanor crimes. [Last April the state’s governor signed an executive order to expedite release for inmates who “do not present a threat to public safety.” A representative told Glamour that inmates at the jail “can be charged for an array of offenses, to include misdemeanors and felonies.”]
Chamblee-Ryan: There was such a clear need for action here, and the violation was so egregious. When we filed the lawsuit, they were charging people for soap. People were trading food for soap. [A representative told Glamour: “Inmates have always had regular access to free soap throughout the pandemic.”]
Boykin: I think COVID has shown that being confined to your home does impact you and does make people go a little stir-crazy. The size of a cell is usually the size of a parking spot, and you’re sharing that with another person.
How did you turn court filings into a viral video campaign?
Crystal Maloney, chief of innovation and strategy at Zealous, a group of public defenders who work to bring often overlooked injustices in the court system to the public eye: The reality is people aren’t going to read a legal filing. So we thought about reimagining the lawsuit and putting it on a website and having various people reading the actual words of people who are incarcerated—not changing them, not interpreting them, but really respecting exactly what they said—so that people could hear the words from people who are inside the jail in P.G. County and suffering in these horrible conditions.
Apple: People see a recognizable face and they go, “Why is this person reading about mucus on the walls?” We just need people to care about this stuff. Because it comes down to calling these [officials] out and pressuring them. Sometimes you need to be embarrassed if you’re doing the wrong thing, you know? If you have that feeling of uselessness, and you don’t know what to do, and you have no money, and you have no means doing anything—at least if you read these statements out loud, it will plant that thing in you, that empathy. It will roil around in your belly like it should, and it will fuel future endeavors to help people.
How could this happen in America? How could people who haven’t been convicted of crimes be locked in cages and denied soap and basic necessities? Why do people who don’t have enough money for bail have to stay in jail?
Chamblee-Ryan: Thousands and thousands of people are held pretrial, and then their cases are dismissed: “Whoops, we can’t prove it, sorry.” That’s it. They’re not compensated, nothing. And a lot of time that charge stays on their record. I think when we talk about Black Lives Matter, one thing that strikes me is the casualness with which the criminal system is willing to throw Black people and poor people behind bars with almost nothing on them. I come from a community where I think most people believe that doesn’t happen in America because it hasn’t happened to people that they know. When I tell stories about things that happen in the criminal system, they’re like, “There must be some explanation!” There’s an inherent trust for authority because authority’s been good to them.
Why do this? Why do justice work?
Boykin: I’m Black. I grew up hyper aware that the color of my skin could mean that I have very little say in what happens to me and the constant and oppressive fear that comes with that. Like most Black women, I have family and friends who have spent time in jails and prisons. The trauma and impact of incarceration follows my cousin for the rest of his life, and it follows my foster siblings who lost their mom during a really important time in their lives.
Johnson: [More than] 90% of individuals who become involved in criminal justice never get their day in court because they take prosecutors’ plea deals. I tell folks that it was like having an out-of-body experience when I sat at the defendant’s table—just the way that the prosecutor was allowed to move through the world as if there were no consequences. I didn’t understand that until I had to go through that system myself. I didn’t see any justice at any part of going through the system. That’s why I made this my lifelong work.
Claire Glenn, public defender in P.G. County: As a public defender I really see the reality, which is that my clients are full people. They’re mothers and grandmothers and fathers and children and entrepreneurs and volunteers.
How have you all been doing this work, since you are also at risk of getting COVID?
Glenn: Even in a prepandemic period, the jail is a horrible, disgusting place. I’ve spent a lot of time in the so-called medical unit, where people who have tested positive for COVID have been detained in isolation. There are feces smeared on cell walls, and toilets overflowing with urine and vomit. In my opinion, most people’s symptoms have been downplayed and dismissed by nurses and staff—I had one client told that he was just playing and he needed to stop messing around when he was too physically weak to leave his cell to get medical treatment. I had one client who was detained there for a week without access to a shower, or to a phone to call his attorney or his loved ones, without even a toothbrush or toothpaste or soap. Our clients have put a lot on the line to give these declarations. They risked retaliation in their criminal cases and from jail staff. Some of my clients were retaliated against by the jail and put into even worse solitary conditions.
[A representative for the jail noted that a court-appointed health inspector reported in May that “the facility implemented mitigating interventions, according to CDC guidelines, including halting all group activities, staggering recreation time, limiting the number of people out of their cells at the same time, providing inmates with masks, isolating sick inmates, making cleaning supplies available and providing education materials regarding COVID-19 to inmates.” He also described the jail as clean.]
The conceit of this article is that you’re these badass women, fighting injustice. But your opponents—Aisha Braveboy, the Prince George’s County state attorney, Paula Xinis, the judge, and Mary Lou McDonough, who’s the director of the department of corrections—they’re powerful women too.
Lanaux: They’re women, but we come from two vastly different perspectives. Quite frankly, if Aisha Braveboy is standing on the other side of the table, I’m looking at her no differently than I may look at a white man, and she’s a Black woman.
Apple: I hate calling out women. But these women—their behavior is inexplicable. Right now everyone is now demanding to be treated better. And behind the scenes I think they—the big “they”—had to figure out something to do like they did at the end of slavery, where they started using vagrancy laws and putting people in prison so they’d be like prisoner slaves. They always find ways to make sure the systems of control stay in place.
Boykin: We live in a societal pickle juice of racism and sexism, and I think everyone has internalized some aspects of these things more than others. I’ll add—it’s also women who are incarcerated, and women who are separated from their families.
How do you handle the fact that it takes this tremendous effort just to try to get some attention for one jail?
Glenn: I was beating my head against the wall, trying to get one client out of the jail at a time. So while from one perspective, this is just one case, challenging one criminal system, in one jurisdiction. But for my clients, this is a source of hope.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour