On Episode Six, titled “Under The Blacklight: COVID and Confinement,” Josie Duffy Rice, Nina A.Kohn, Marc Lamont Hill, Rebecca Nagle, Ravi Ragbir, and Alyosxa Tudor exposed and analyzed the ways that worldwide inclinations to punish and confine people make for lethal conditions in the midst of pandemic. Grounded in the historical context that this and past panels have discussed, we examined COVID-19’s sweep through confined spaces, specifically in prisons and jails, the home, ICE detention centers, Native Country, and nursing homes. Responding to our concern about the apparent distinction between older communities and the imprisoned and fraught discussions of ageism, the prison industrial complex, domestic violence and the feasibility of social distancing, we went in deep.
Marc Lamont Hill got things started with a rousing articulation of the ways that social vulnerability and marginality are pre-existing conditions in much the same way that diabetes and obesity are. He mapped, strikingly, the ways that COVID is concentrated in confined spaces. In New York City, for instance, the infection rate in prisons is 30 times the national average. In his words, prisons and jails have thus become, functionally, death camps. Hill admonished that this need not be an inevitability.
With 10,000 residents already dead nationally, long-term care facilities have become a similarly lethal location. Nina A. Kohn spoke to this tragic phenomenon and noted that around the world as many as 50% of all COVID deaths will occur in long-term facilities. This is no accident -- it’s “the result of choices that our society has made about how we care for older people and older bodies.” Due to a toxic combination of poor working conditions for laborers and poor living conditions for residents, 400,000 people die in nursing homes each year from infection. This year, that number will surely spike dramatically.
Taking up this mantle of critically analyzing spaces already geared towards oppression, Ravi Ragbir gave us a snapshot of what’s happening to the 45,000 to 55,000 people currently in ICE detention centers. He located the draconian measures that ICE has continued to take in the ideology that infuses United States’ immigration policy, which Ragbir described as one based on the idea that “The more deaths they have in [any] moment, the...less likely [that people] come here.”
Rebecca Nagle, likewise highlighting just how sinister the era of COVID has become, relayed that police departments are receiving reports of domestic violence at a 20%-50% increase. In her words, “perpetrators take advantage of those structures that limit people’s movement. So what we’re seeing right now, with [shelter-in-place orders], is that for a lot of people home is not a safe place.” She also noted the sexist inequalities manifesting in who’s on the frontlines, and who is still being compensated for their “essential” work.
Alyosxa Tudor broadened the scope of the conversation to include the exploitative practices playing out and their philosophical underpinnings. They encouraged us to think from a transnational perspective and, in doing so, mine the biggest-picture implications and consequences of our systems of injustice. “[We should not] single out regions, but put them into relation [with] each other and have a global perspective that brings things together.” Tudor, a Romanian migrant themself, challenged the audience to think beyond the nation-state.
Josie Duffy Rice, tying together several strands of the prior-to conversation, asked perhaps the central questions of the evening: “[W]hat is our addiction to punishment worth? How many lives is it worth, and whose lives is it worth?” She told the story of the first woman to die from COVID in a federal prison. This was a pregnant woman serving 26 months for a drug offense. In some prisons and jails, we’re seeing infection rates of up to 80%, yet we’re told it’s for the sake of “public safety” that we create these sort of hotspots. Furthermore, in those hotspots there are still people unable to afford soap and basic hygiene products.
In this episode, we had an especially lively roundtable discussion and vibrant audience participation. You can listen to our YouTube recording, and await our forthcoming podcast to further engage the material.
Next week, we’ll have Carol Anderson, Alex DiBranco, Joe Lowndes, Mab Segrest, Dorian Warren, and Jason Wilson on for “Under The Blacklight: Mobilizing Whiteness to ‘Re-Open America.’” You can read more about the guests, and RSVP, here.