April 29, 2020

GUEST ROOM | In Light of COVID-19, Question the Legitimacy of Incarceration in Central N.Y.

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The coronavirus threatens us all, but those incarcerated in New York State’s prisons and immigrant detention centers are especially vulnerable.  Now more than ever, we need to question the legitimacy of incarceration as a means of promoting justice in our society. We need to re-educate ourselves.

This process of re-education has in fact already begun. Two years ago, hundreds of us in Tompkins County had a community read of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This reading, and the work of our local Show Up for Racial Justice, Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter groups, made it clear that prisons are a vehicle of racist and classist elimination from society of people who are considered less worthy. In 2017, at the The People’s School — a free alternative educational experience open to the community — activists, teachers and professors, students and citizens gained insight into this problematic concept of “worthiness” in the context of presentations including labor movement history, the growth of the prison industrial complex and possibilities for socially imaginative schooling.

From such serious community education, Decarcerate Tompkins emerged to fight the expansion of the Tompkins County jail. This was our refusal to further enrich the private-prison industry corporate operation, with public money desperately needed to provide affordable housing and mental health and addiction treatment for those wounded by the effects of generational, systemically caused poverty and racism. Instead, such public funds must go into affordable housing, universal healthcare, guaranteed income and tuition-free public higher education. This era of pandemic sharply highlights the need for this public investment.

Now consider the New York State Detention Centers where people are locked up for indeterminate periods, typically due to the alleged crime of crossing borders in search of safety.  Near Buffalo, the Batavia Detention Center, run by I.C.E., has become New York State’s hotbed of COVID infection: To date 45 people have already tested positive; many more have symptoms but have not been tested. Given the close quarters, there is no way for the facility to enact the public health measures mandated by the state.  We urge those reading this article to call Thomas Feeley, I.C.E. field director at (716) 464-5800 X5837 and demand the release of nonviolent detainees.

We urge the renewal and growth of the kind of solidarity that made possible the defeat of the proposed Tompkins County jail expansion two years ago. We must revive progressive educational events like The People’s School, where all of us can unlearn the white supremacy and social class supremacy we have absorbed simply by being alive in the current U.S. pro-corporate, capitalist culture. We must form coalitions that collectively demand a healthier, more just society. Individual efforts, while necessary and commendable, are not enough. Our institutions of higher education must transform themselves to offer true leadership in the re-education of our society (in this vein, college campuses, currently devoid of students, should offer to house the formerly incarcerated). We also need our K-12 public schools to have as their focus the development of the social imagination of young people.

Ithaca ranks in the top ten in terms of density of nonprofits across the country. We have representatives here of almost every progressive organization in the country. We, therefore, have the infrastructure, the critical social and environmental knowledge and political skill to reform and re-educate our society in this time of pandemic.

In this spirit, please contribute as generously as possible to any of the following reliable donation sites.

Justice for Migrant Families: They work directly to pressure for the release of asylum seekers from the deadly Batavia facility while also providing commissary funds for soap and decent food. Mutual Aid Tompkins: This organization prioritizes the needs of people who are poor, sick, elderly, disabled, undocumented, queer, of color and/or facing increased hardship during the coronavirus crisis. URO directly supports families affected by incarceration, with special focus on the food and housing insecurity of those recently released in response to the coronavirus. TCIRC’s appeal from Justice for Immigrant Families to support the folks being released from Batavia Detention Center.
Barbara Regenspan, a Colgate University professor of education, and her husband David wrote this with the support of numerous individuals affiliated with the Tompkins County Human Rights Coalition, TC-SURJ, Ithaca DSA and Decarcerate Tompkins. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.