by Beth Taylor, Karen Ali, and Aaron Appel
Turn on the news. Listen to the radio. Check your social media. Without a doubt, you will find numerous Covid-19 stories – from the infection spikes across the country to the debate about opening schools this fall. But amidst all of this, there is stunning silence on one fact: COVID-19 is worsening in prisons and it is because of state government inaction.
In Pennsylvania, this silence means that the life and death consequences of Governor Wolf’s refusal to protect and bring people home from prison goes easily ignored – and that those most affected are forgotten. It means that every day our friends and loved ones inside continue to endure the inhumane trauma of solitary confinement, which is being used as a means of social distancing. And it means that people like Karen Ali, whose husband, Omar, has been incarcerated for over 49 years, could lose him twice – first to our abusive, racist system of incarceration and second to a disease whose spread is being made worse by Governor Wolf’s cowardice.
Here is Omar’s story, in Karen’s own words:
I am the wife of Omar Askia Ali- Sistrunk. He has been wrongfully incarcerated for 49 years for a crime he had nothing to do with. In 1971 he was picked up while taking his daughters to school, and going to open up his businesses for the day. Omar was a strong and effective advocate for his community and at that time, his biggest challenge as a member of the Nation of Islam, was to run the drugs and the drug dealers out of their community. This targeted him as being bad for business for the dirty, corrupt cops. He was later picked up, arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole.
The corrupt drug dealing cop set … the case … up. The Assistant District Attorney picked the all white jurors. The probable Cause was false. From day one we left no stone unturned to unravel this wrongful conviction. Every discovery, we found, we were able to find documentation.
Omar never saw himself being in prison as the end of his existence. When he came into the violent prison environment at Holmesburg Prison he immediately worked with the commissioner to be a part of the solution not the problem. He developed a nonprofit that lowered the violence and the recidivism. He instituted programs of healthy gardening to life skills. Every prison he was transferred to throughout those 49 years, Omar always became a stabilizer in the environment as he continued to overturn those stones of incarceration.
Omar chronicled his experiences in a book, The Truth and Nothing But the Truth, and gives a bird’s eye view of the challenges – whether emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical — that he has had to overcome. At this time, along comes the coronavirus, which is a death sentence for the vulnerable population. And my husband, along with others, does not deserve to die in prison because they’re in lockdown.— Karen Ali
The horrible truth is that prisoners are 5.5 times more likely to get Covid-19 and three times more likely to die from it, according to a study from researchers at Johns Hopkins and UCLA published in JAMA on July 8, 2020. The study also warned that without implementation of more effective infection control, containing the spread of the virus within our prisons is unlikely.
In April, Governor Wolf announced a seemingly bold move and signed a reprieve order that could have freed 1800 medically vulnerable people from Pennsylvania state prisons and promoted better public health management inside. Compassionate release makes sense for public and community health as the medically vulnerable have particularly low rates of recidivism. However, even if all who are eligible under this order were released, it would hardly make a dent in managing the spread of infection and death in Pennsylvania’s crowded, unsanitary prisons.
So in the grand scheme of things, with more than 45,000 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania, Wolf’s action was a small one—and he has not even made good on this promise. In more than 3 months, he has released less than 10% of those eligible, increasing the spread and risk of deaths inside and outside the prison walls. In Pennsylvania state facilities (“SCIs”), there is a ballooning number of infections and deaths. At the Huntingdon facility alone, five people have died, and 172 inmates and 54 staff tested positive for COVID-19, while only a single individual was released on reprieve.
Make no mistake — these are fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers. These are cherished human beings and the lack of action by Governor Wolf is murderous and unconscionable. To pressure Governor Wolf to safely release people from state prisons and ICE detention during COVID-19, and ensure adequate sup- port to those who remain incarcerated, people and organizations across Pennsylvania have come together to form Free People Strike.
Using a rolling hunger strike, we are committed to giving up as much as we can to bring attention to the plight of those living in prison and to our concern for their lives. We believe that no one should be in cages. Certainly no one should die in them.
Our demands are adapted from the ACLU-PA, Amistad Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center, ACT-UP Philly, Inside Justice, and Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and compel Governor Wolf to do the following:
- Release the 1,800 people eligible under the April 10th reprieve order.2.
- Expand the reprieve to include people with drug trafficking offenses, technical violations of parole, the medically vulnerable, the elderly, and those who have served 75% of their minimum sentences.
- Suspend sentences for technical violations of parole.
- Sign applications for commutations waiting review. (Currently, we are delighted to report that two out of the three applications have been signed.)5.
- Ensure those released have reentry resources.
- Ensure prevention, access to testing, and medical care for those who remain incarcerated.
- Issue an Emergency Removal Order on the Berks County Residential Center and release all families.
People who are incarcerated have carried out hunger strikes extensively through history as a way of resistance. Our rolling hunger strike is a tribute to the sacrifice and leadership of people striking in prisons historically and currently, including a recent strike at SCI-Albion. We are them and they are us.
Free People Strike aims to be accountable first and foremost to those incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons and detention centers, the family members of those incarcerated, and the long-standing organizations who have been leading the movement to fight for people incarcerated and detained. Our campaign has been endorsed by more than 25 organizations throughout the state, to whom we are also accountable.
We would like to share, in their own words, why some of our strikers decided to join Free People Strike:
In both my hunger strike and other actions, I strive to stand in solidarity with the long, ongoing history of both violent and non-violent resistance led by those within prisons who are too often deprived of their audience. Despite state repression, hunger strikes have been amongst the most common forms of resistance mobilized by incarcerated people globally. It’s time for those of us outside the prison walls to join them. Amidst COVID-19, rising temperatures, and the countless everyday abuses inflicted upon incarcerated people (including incarceration itself) — now is the time to decarcerate.—Sanjeevi Nuhumal, Free People Strike
Personally, I hope to use this time as a space of reflection, learning, and action. I also want to bring special attention to the intersections of injustice that make prison populations particularly vulnerable to a pandemic. The dangers posed to incarcerated persons by COVID-19 do not exist in isolation. The current situation in our nation’s prisons and jails is the expression of a carceral system that institutionalizes the racial and economic status quo. Criminalized groups, including people of color, the mentally ill, queer folk, and those living in poverty (many of these overlapping) face a hostile power structure geared toward policing their lives and livelihoods. Prisons become liminal spaces outside of the scope of societal protection, where human liberties are suspended. This has become increasingly clear during the pandemic.COVID-19 compounds the violence of an already inhumane criminal justice system. People on the inside are unable to social distance properly, have little (if any) access to quality health care, and are often rendered invisible in the larger societal struggle against the virus.— Caitlin Joseph, Free People Strike
As a white person, I think it’s important for me to use my privilege to help dismantle the racist system that has disproportionately put black and brown people behind bars. A system that I’ve benefited from and that most white people, in one way or another, have been complicit in. It’s not enough to raise our voices in solidarity – we must meaningfully and persistently take action. Every day that Gov. Wolf refuses to use his power of reprieve to protect the people in our prisons and detention centers from COVID is another day of potential wide-spread death sentences. This is unacceptable and taking part in this hunger strike is a powerful way to intensify the voices of those already doing this work and to apply maximum pressure to Wolf.— Beth Taylor, Free People Strike & End Mass Incarceration Lehigh Valley
No matter why each of us has chosen to join Free People Strike, we all deeply affirm the need to free the vulnerable, to reunify families, and to value the lives of all of us, no matter which side of the prison bars we may reside on. We show unity and demand recognition of the fundamental dignity and interconnectedness that we all share as we move forward and build the world that we all deserve.
How You Can Join Us
- Join the rolling hunger strike for at least five days. Sign up at here.
- Join a Solidarity Strike on Wednesdays by signing up here.
- Sign this petition and share.
- Call Wolf daily at 717-787-2500. Ask him what he’s doing about vulnerable people in prisons. Call log here.
- Think about your strengths and how else you can support this work and reach out to us.
Social Media: @freepeoplestrike
If you feel moved to support Omar Askia Ali-Sistrunk in his struggle for freedom, you can reach out to Karen Ali at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Ali is a leading organizer with the Human Rights Coalition and is the wife of Omar Askia Ali-Sistrunk. Although she is in her 70s, she has committed to two hunger strikes.
Aaron Appel, a member of the Human Rights Coalition, joined the Free People Strike as a hunger striker and member of their striker on boarding team.
Beth Taylor is a Lehigh Valley community activist, member of End Mass Incarceration Lehigh Valley (justice.ppjr.org), and co-leader of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of March on Harrisburg.