By Josefina Morales
This Monday, activists in Austin gathered at the Travis County Courthouse to bring attention to inhumane conditions prisoners are facing in local jails, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, demanding that judges immediately release all eligible prisoners as a COVID outbreak hits the Travis County Correctional Complex located in Del Valle. The action was organized by Red Aid, a group which fights for political prisoners and organizes around other legal and prison-related issues.
In attendance at the action was a woman from East Austin who shared information about local jail conditions on behalf of her elderly father, who has been detained inside the facility since early December without a trial.
The prisoner relayed through his daughter that nobody is receiving hot meals, only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and that the sick only receive Advil. In addition, he and others are subjected to eighteen-hour periods of isolation or more due to the jail’s implementation of COVID-19 restrictions.
One speaker talked about how inmates elsewhere are fighting back against similar situations. “In St. Louis, we saw inmates … rise up against their unjust conditions. They clogged toilets, flooded floors, broke windows, hung banners outside their facility!” the speaker said.
Activists spoke about the outcome of Governor Greg Abbot’s March 2020 executive order, which prevents people accused of or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released from jails, or demanding that people in those same categories pay expensive bonds in full in order to buy their freedom. This order has resulted in the state holding a greater number of prisoners for multiple months awaiting indictment, in many cases unable to speak to anybody but their lawyer.
Abbot claims that reviewing cases and releasing prisoners awaiting proceedings “slows our ability to respond to the disaster caused by COVID-19.” Rather than slow the influx of people into jails, Abbot’s order has prolonged their stay in unsanitary conditions, accelerating a coronavirus outbreak and leaving prisoners and their families fearing for their well-being.
Activists called for immediate action, demanding that local judges individually review prisoner cases, lower or eliminate bonds for accused inmates, and allow for their release in the name of the inmates’ health and safety.
A large banner held by the activists read, “Travis County Judges: Stop Using COVID to Deny Poor Inmates’ Release.”
Other signs at the rally read, “Poor People Who Can’t Afford Bail Are Trapped, Call Judges,” and “3 Weeks Without Hot Meals.” After demonstrating at the courthouse, the group walked to a nearby park to speak further with bystanders about the situation in the jails.
One observer to the action exclaimed, “It’s almost like they want them to die in there!”
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