The pandemic and the George Floyd protests give society a rare window to push for change.
These are exceptional times. The world is battling the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, raising fundamental questions about the future of work, welfare, and civil liberties. While these issues are now taking centre stage, the crisis is intensifying public scrutiny on governments and opening spaces for radical challenges This includes questioning state power and structural violence.
Since the UK government called for a lockdown, announcing that people are to remain within their homes and apply social-distancing, many started raising questions about the welfare of prisoners and other detainees. If all public spaces where people gather in groups, from theatres to schools and workplaces, had to shut down – what was going to happen to the thousands confined within overcrowded prisons and immigration removal centres?
As news hit of Covid-19 cases in UK detention centres, coordinated pressure was exerted by NGOs, activists and lawyers. The movement defending the rights of migrants argued that it was inhumane and discriminatory to confine people in conditions that are ideal for the spread of any infection or disease. A consensus emerged amongst practitioners that this was inhumane and discriminatory, and considerable pressure on the government began to grow. Detainees, including many of my clients, repeatedly told me that during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, they were still sharing confined communal spaces. It is only in the last few weeks that many have received basic materials like hand sanitisers following a recent inspection. Meanwhile, many of my clients continued to do cleaning jobs, without any proper PPE, on their usual pay of around £2 ($2.51) a day. There have now been almost 1,000 people released from Immigration Removal Centres (IRC). Another 368 remain, which is the lowest number in the last 10 years. This reaffirms what activists and groups have long argued: it is possible for our society to operate without IRCs.
It is important that we do not treat these releases as a concession or ‘gift’ given by the Home Office. The truth is that the need to dehumanise and punish migrants was deprioritised in the face of the inability to control the spread of the virus and mounting public criticism. While a case is being made for the end of immigration detention in the UK, a broader one is also taking centre stage across the world about state violence and the necessity of prisons all together.
The recent death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in the US who was killed whilst being restrained by a police officer, has been met with global rage. As protests broke out in Minneapolis, where the incident took place, most media outlets and social media platforms were buzzing with discussions surrounding police brutality, state violence and institutional racism. Conversations over whether institutions like the police are, in fact, fit for purpose started trending internationally. These events will further the resolve of many who have already started to think more about rehabilitation and restorative justice in light of the current pandemic – reigniting political questions that have been prominent across social justice movements in the US over the last few months and years.
In response to the pandemic, US activists organised #FreeThemAll campaigns, which mobilised people to join weekly drive rallies to demand the release of prisoners and those in immigration detention. They also collected funds to post bail for prisoners, efforts which have now increased in support of the Minnesota demonstrators, with donations rolling in from across the world.
This reinforces to the need to rely and share methods of organising and mobilisation internally and with international movements. The struggle is global and the added strain of the pandemic has allowed us to see this much clearer than before. In Egypt, for example, where Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s totalitarian regime has further intensified the repression and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners, the rising death-toll has led to further scrutiny from human rights organisations. Prisoners have gone on hunger strike over the poor conditions of overcrowded cells, lack of protection, and little to no access to healthcare despite the spread of Covid-19 cases.
The International Day of Palestinian Prisoners last month was marked by the increased arrests of over 2,000 Palestinians by Israeli forces since early March. This is despite calls from human rights organisations for the release of all detainees in the region, who are at serious risk from the growing rate of infections within Israeli prisons which hold almost 200 minors. A recent initiative organised by Middle Eastern and North African activists, made the link between prison abolition movements in the US, and those fighting against carceral regimes in Syria and Iran – especially in the context of the global pandemic.
Angela Davis summarises the crux of this issue perfectly, when she wrote that prison “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
The detrimental impact of the prison industrial complex – which includes immigration detention, and the possibility of abolition – are no longer ideas that are too “extreme” for general populations to support. As the collapse of our economy continues amidst the Covid-19 crisis, people are increasingly demanding greater accountability. This will include a process of looking at existing state institutions, much more critically. As business as usual continues to vanish, more and more people will demand a say in what stays and what goes, and how we re-imagine our collective future. As the state prepares to make us pay for its failures and yet another catastrophic financial crisis, we must also organise our fight back. In these circumstances we should expect greater state repression in the UK, targeted at the poor and racialised in an attempt to move responsibility away from the rich and powerful.
Now is the time for us to collectively fight to never return to how things were again.
This article was first published in TRT World.