Portland, OR [05/01/2020]– A grassroots coalition of organizations representing people who are directly affected by the criminal legal system rallied in front of the Multnomah County Detention Center today to call on Governor Kate Brown, Sheriff Mike Reese, and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury to release people from Oregon’s prisons, jails, and immigration jails.
This action highlights the importance of May Day and what it represents for worker rights, especially in a public health crisis. Undocumented workers and people incarcerated in prison are essential workers, from doing laundry for local hospitals for 60 cents a day to growing our food, yet they cannot social distance and are not protected from the spread of the novel Coronavirus. It is key that elected officials do what they must to protect workers.
Coalition members arrived in vehicles emblazoned with signs reading “Free Them All” and “Mass Release Now,” and they honked their horns outside the facility. Over loudspeakers, they voiced their concern for prisoners at risk of infection. They maintained social distancing standards throughout the protest.
Experts nationwide have warned that detention facilities are particularly vulnerable to large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks due to close proximity, inadequate health care, and limited hygiene access. The coalition maintains that jails and prisons have always been a public health crisis.
“Based on my experience as a prisoner in Oregon, all prisoners and staff are at risk of getting sick—and potentially dying,” said Terrence Hayes. “When I was in county jail, there was a serious staph outbreak, and they could not get it under control. Staph and other infectious diseases run rampant in jails and prisons, where healthcare is seriously inadequate. The 14,000 people in Oregon’s prisons and jails can’t ‘Stay Home and Save Lives.’ None of them deserve to die in a cage from a disease they couldn’t escape.”
Last week, Oregon State Corrections officials told Brown in a report that 5,800 inmates – about 40 percent of the prison population – would have to be released to allow for social distancing in prisons statewide. Brown said that she refused to consider a release on that scale. Meanwhile, the virus has already begun to spread among prisoners and staff.
“My husband is incarcerated in the first unit at OSP to have a positive COVID-19 test,” said Natasha Pickens. “I haven’t been able to see him in two months. There’s no social distancing in prison—they are still eating in the chow hall in groups of 200 people, still going out in the yard, still sharing small cells. Worse, now the Department of Corrections is moving sick prisoners from around the state into OSP. They are risking the life of every person incarcerated in Oregon.”
The protest at OSP is part of a growing movement across the country demanding the immediate release of prisoners to prevent correctional and immigration institutions from becoming community epicenters for the spread of COVID-19.
“We are all in this together,” said Pickens. “This is a global pandemic that impacts people all over the world and demonstrates our interconnectedness. We are only as safe as the most vulnerable people in our communities.”
Coalition organizations that took part in the protest today included Care Not Cops, Critical Resistance, Oregon DA for the People, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Black and Pink PDX, Poor People’s Campaign, Jewish Voices for Peace, Never Again, Portland Democratic Socialists of America, Lane County Mutual Aid Network, and The Climate Justice League.