At I Grow Chicago, we do work on the ground and get to witness some of the barriers to wellness and ways we prevent all of us from thriving. When we see injustice, we must share so we can create a world we all deserve to live in: where love lives in public and no life is expendable. As Governor Pritzker stated in his speech on the morning of April 17, “There is no life in this state that is more or less precious than any other.”  

As more data comes to light about the effects of Covid-19, we learn about the ways different communities are affected around the country. More than 470 federal inmates and over 275 prison staff members have tested positive nationwide. Due to a lack of testing, these numbers are projected to be even higher than we know.

No one deserves to be denied protection from this virus. Human lives are at stake, and in order to live in our core value of love, we delved deeper into the issue of incarceration and its effects on community. 

Behind the barrier: Incarceration

Across the country, prisons and jails are facing a massive infection rate that could devastate thousands. Recently, it was released that in Chicago 70% of deaths due to Covid-19 are of Black people. We are seeing similar disparities among incarcerated populations. Within the state of Illinois, over 23,300 prisoners call the West and South sides of Chicago home, the community we serve. About 62% of incarcerated people in Illinois are Black; the already disproportionate death rate of Black Chicagoans could grow even more if we don’t do something to address our incarcerated population’s safety soon. 

In prisons across the country, guards were the first people within the system to test positive for COVID-19. Two weeks ago, two inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in Cook County Jail; two weeks later, there are now more than 350 people who have tested positive. As of April 15, three people have died. According to a recent article from the New England Journal of Medicine, roughly half of incarcerated people nationwide have at least one chronic illness, increasing the risk associated with infection. 

From data we collected in 2019 in our case management system, 51% of the people we serve have been convicted before and 59% have been to jail/prison. The community we love, Englewood, is being seriously and traumatically impacted by the current crisis in our prisons.  

What does this look like for individuals? 

Close confinement and quarantine precautions are not the same, for many reasons. First, prisons put people in close quarters with limited and controlled access to basic needs. Second, staff members are travelling back and forth between the prison and the rest of society. In other words, social distancing precautions are not truly possible for incarcerated populations who are forced to be in confinement with guards, staff, and other inmates.

Families in Englewood are especially affected by this issue.  According to Dr. Cooper of Adler University, the city of Chicago contains nearly 1,000 blocks referred to as “million dollar blocks,” where a million dollars or more has been spent to incarcerate the individuals living there. From data compiled by the Chicago Million Dollar Blocks Project,  we found that on our Peace Campus alone there has been $320,803 invested into incarcerating individuals; on the 25 blocks we serve, millions of dollars. 

For the community we’re currently serving, that means people they love are detained. For every person from one of these blocks who has been convicted, there are many more people, family and friends, who are connected to them and impacted by their life and health outcomes. Our community is worried and scared for the people they love. 

There are many barriers for our community when trying to contact and check in with their incarcerated loved ones: 

  • Visit. Going to visit someone in prison means leaving your house, which as we all know, is ill-advised. It also can mean having to travel out of county or out of state, which is difficult and dangerous if you have a car, and expensive without one. This means money that a lot of our community doesn’t have. 
  • Call. As explored last week in our blog, many people don’t have internet access, or even phones. This is another added cost. In order to call someone who is currently incarcerated, there is a fee. A fifteen minute call costs on average over $5.00. In times of crisis and fear, having a daily phone call or a long conversation can relieve us of so much stress. For people who have family in prison, that relief means another bill you have to find a way to pay. 
  • Send a letter. This would require people to have postage, which can be another added cost. If someone does have postage, this still means you are unable to see your loved one face to face or receive a timely response.

Without the ability to communicate with loved ones, there is just waiting: either waiting to be released or waiting for your family to come back to you, hoping that you all make it. This waiting, without relief, causes stress and is a trauma that builds up in our bodies. As we all process this trauma of a pandemic, people in our community are finding fewer ways to relieve themselves from the pressure of it. 

What does this look like for the public? 

Public health affects all of us, whether incarcerated in a jail cell or encased in our homes. As we have learned from public health experts over the past couple months, this virus spreads exponentially without extreme social distancing, access to equitable resources, and safety precautions. Because guards have a high interaction rate with the rest of society, outbreaks in prisons put not only those incarcerated at risk, but also society as a whole. Anyone infected puts us all in greater danger; prisons are not separate from the rest of the world. To keep everyone safe, we must compassionately consider everyone, including those in prison. With close proximity of inmates due to mass incarceration, the virus spreads quicker than in public. Prison is no place for a pandemic, it will only worsen the public health crisis that has disproportionately affected Black communities. This is an issue of public safety in the present and in the future. 

In addition to a public health issue, this is an issue of morality. How we respond to this crisis will define us in the eyes of future generations. Moral injury, defined as the shame and guilt we feel when we commit or fail to prevent an act that goes against our own ethics and humanity, is a form of trauma. This trauma lives in the body, and although it won’t harm us as quickly as this virus, it has a toxic effect on our health and wellbeing.

When people who are imprisoned are pushed to write out a plea to newscasters, saying “Help, we matter too,” and we are all not moved to action, that has an effect (New York Times). This moment in time is defining for us, as a generation, as a city, as a world. How are we going to treat each other? Our founder, Robbin, was pushed to start I Grow Chicago 6 years ago because she could no longer listen to the list of people who were killed over the weekend. Every Monday she heard this news, and one day she decided she couldn’t sit on her couch and listen any longer; she couldn’t bear the moral injury of inaction. She decided this wasn’t the world she wanted for her son. As we face this crisis, we must all make the choice to prioritize love over fear. And when we don’t, the price we pay is not only real human lives but our own humanity. 

Who are we going to be when this crisis is over? How will our great grandchildren remember us? 

What are people’s options?

To practice social distancing in prisons is nearly impossible. Some facilities have placed inmates who are showing symptoms in solitary confinement, or locking inmates inside their cells for more than 22 hours a day to restrict movement, according to a recent New York Times article. Solitary confinement has been shown through countless studies to be detrimental to the mental wellbeing of any human being. And as all of us have learned, staying within one space with limited movement is difficult; twenty-two hours a day in a 6 by 8 foot jail cell is a cruel and unusual punishment during a pandemic (NAACP). 

The NAACP offers multiple plausible solutions to these issues, amongst them reducing the prison population. This would mean, among other measures, releasing people with non-violent charges back to their homes. As of April 17, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, is set to be released from prison to serve his sentence at home for fear of contracting the coronavirus. If he deserves this, how can we say that other non-violent offenders, including those that call the South and West side home, do not? 

But this is not enough, as not all people in prison have homes to return to. By employing decarceration, we would limit people from close proximity to others, but we would not support them after they leave. Even after being released, people are in need of support reintegrating into society so they are able to keep themselves, their families, and the public safe. 

Here are some needs we’ve encountered at the Peace House for people recently released from prison: 

  • Housing
  • State ID
  • Legal support
  • Service hours for parole
  • Finding a job and keeping a job (formerly incarcerated people are 5x less likely to get a job) 
  • Worried that they won’t be able to support their families. 
  • Processing the trauma of their time spent in prison 
  • Adjusting to the new world they’re stepping into 

Taking these barriers together and working with community members every single day, it is easy to understand how various barriers operate as an interconnected system to increase inequality. 

What is I Grow Chicago doing? 

Through our understanding of the criminal justice system, we see it isn’t broken; rather, it is operating on the racist and unjust principles that it was built on. Prevention and reentry are addressing similar barriers, as employment and community help people find more stable ways of living. At I Grow Chicago, we work to support people in everything they need to find that stable life. 

The majority of people, 87%, who are asked to pay bond and bail can not afford even the lowest required payments at lower than $1,000, as explored by GQ. Between this and last year alone, we have spent $12,000 on bond for our neighbors in order to prevent them from losing jobs, custody, and housing. Paying bond means that some of our community members, who would otherwise still be in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bond, are safe from becoming one of the growing number of cases in Cook County jails.  We are proud to prevent more human suffering in this way. 

Before Covid-19, Legal Aid Chicago was operating completely free legal services five days a week out of our Wellness House. They offered legal work for all cases, excluding criminal but including expungement. Once a week, they offered specific support for benefits. These are what can help sustain families and work them towards a more stable life. We also offered job support out of our Peace House, in applying, securing, and maintaining a position.  We have moved these operations to be completely over the phone. Anyone calling in to look for support will be helped in whatever way possible. 

Finally, part of our support is continuing to educate ourselves and others about the diverse realities within our world through our online platform. The practices we have in place now are unsafe and cruel to the incarcerated population, the staff within the prison, and all their families. We will continue to support the most vulnerable communities in whatever way is needed. We have to continue supporting one another. We have to make demands. This is how we grow, this is how we are better. As Brian Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” 

Now is the time to value all human life, to build a world where love lives in public.