What do you do if you want the voices of incarcerated people at the Prince George’s County jail in Maryland to be heard during the Covid-19 pandemic? Collect sworn, written statements detailing the appalling and dangerous conditions inside, have a group of famous (Fiona Apple, pictured above, and Alec Baldwin) and not-so-famous artists, activists and attorneys read them on camera, then upload the videos to a website called Gasping for Justice.
These powerful and gut-wrenching videos are the brainchild of Hear Us, an impact advocacy project that publishes first-hand accounts of the human impact and cruelty of criminalization, jails, prisons and detention centers in the time of COVID-19. The titles of the videos speak volumes about the inhumanity of being locked up during a pandemic: “It is so hot, it feels like my heart is being stuck with needles,” read by artist Molly Crabapple; “I begged to go to medical, but I was ignored,” read by James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America; and “It’s like I am not even human,” read by Rabia Chaudry, attorney and author.
“We hope that people will pay attention and pressure and shame those in a position to do something.”
Scott Hechinger, the founder and director of Zealous, an organization of public defenders, was also involved in the creation of Gasping for Justice, and explained the genesis of the project.
“In Prince George’s County jail, sworn declarations from people on the inside were being shared to an audience of one—a federal judge in a civil rights lawsuit—who was unmoved and refused to release anyone despite horrific conditions and the violent spread of COVID-19,” he told Filter. “We want to make it impossible for people in power to ignore human suffering any longer. We don’t have cell phone footage inside of jails and prisons. We have the stories shared by those suffering inside, smuggled out through defenders, organizers, friends and family. We hope that people will pay attention and pressure and shame those in a position to do something.”
On April 21, the Civil Rights Corps filed an emergency class action complaint against Prince George’s County Department of Corrections alleging that the jail had ignored hygiene and social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control during the pandemic. The lawsuit includes this description of conditions inside the jail, which is on lockdown 23 hours-a-day:
“Prisoners in the 10-person cell also lack basic hygiene products. Many do not have soap or have to share a single bar with others. Some have not had toothbrushes or toothpaste for over a week. They are still not allowed to shower. All of the sick men share a single, mildewed sink. Prisoners may go five or six days without being able to change their clothes or underwear. There are no mental health services.”
In jails across the country, district attorneys have been unwilling to release masses of medically vulnerable people, those charged with low-level offenses, people on parole with minor technical violations, or people who are near the end of their jail term. This includes Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy. DAs know that cells are overcrowded, social distancing is impossible and that adequate personal protective equipment isn’t available. Like nursing homes, jails and prisons are known vectors for the coronavirus to spread quickly and to kill.
“I asked to get into the medical unit but they make you pay $4 for the form and I don’t have money for that.”
Medical care in jails for those sickened with COVID-19 is often difficult to access, as one plaintiff in the lawsuit explained:
“For about a week or two I have been experiencing shortage of breath and coughing … About four days ago, I asked to get into the medical unit but they make you pay $4 for the form and I don’t have money for that. I am losing my sense of taste … It feels like my taste buds are numb. I have had diarrhea for about a week … About two days ago I decided I should probably go to the medical unit. But I decided not to ask because I do not have the money for the form.”
How can it be that people in jail who have no money and are sick are expected to pay for medical attention during a pandemic?
The Gasping for Justice project is a vital, visual documentation of how the COVID-19 pandemic does discriminate. It shows that people in jail are not alone or forgotten and there are many communities willing to use their voices and video technology to make sure their voices are heard.
Everyone is invited to read and film a sworn declaration. On the website under Add Your Voice, there are instructions on how to choose one to read, record yourself and post to social media.
Screenshot from the Fiona Apple reading of sworn testimony from the Gasping for Justice website.