This essay is part of #TheRisingTide4ClimateJustice’s Elephant in the Room series (link): a writing project calling out the institutions and ideas that contribute to environmental environmental injustice within the Birmingham community and across the South.

By Meagan Lyle

Like many other cities across the country, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Birmingham has enacted a “Shelter in place” ordinance, calling on residents of the city to stay at home as much as possible and requiring non-essential businesses to close their doors. It is vital that we stay home if we are able, and follow the CDC’S recommendations for health and safety during this time. As a resident of Birmingham who works two service industry jobs and co-owns a feminist bookstore (all of which have shut down due to this public health crisis), I have had a lot of time on my hands to think through how this pandemic is affecting different people across the city, country and world. This week brought rent deadlines to millions of us who have not been employed for the past two weeks and who have no paycheck on the horizon. Even with the hope of a lackluster stimulus package coming, so many people are left out of receiving even those minimal benefits. It feels like all we can do is  wait and watch our savings dwindle, and watch the impact of high unemployment rates unfold before our eyes. We stay at home. We shelter in place. 

I was perhaps naively hoping that our local officials would respond to this crisis with more imaginative people-centered solutions, taking the opportunity to challenge some of the systems that got us here in the first place. Unfortunately, this has yet to happen. Mayor Woodfin has detailed the punitive enforcement tactics of Birmingham’s shelter in place ordinance as: “Failure to comply with this ordinance is punishable by the general penalty provided in Sec 1-1-6 of the General Code of the City of Birmingham.” After looking up Sec 1-1-6, I found that failure to comply with this ordinance could result in a $500 fine or up to 30 days in jail. 

How exactly would putting people in cages in close proximity to other people reach the goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Birmingham?

How exactly would putting people in cages in close proximity to other people reach the goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Birmingham? Woodfin’s predictable reliance on the prison system to enforce a rule designed at protecting people is both illogical and violent. This virus is and will continue to feed off of our corrupt and unequal systems. Relying on old systems of abuse will only contribute to the spread and impact of COVID-19. Instead of pouring more people into our already overcrowded prisons in Alabama, we should be releasing non-violent offenders, along with everyone in pretrial detention and I.C.E. custody who should have never been incarcerated in the first place. 

I have been a prison abolitionist since I first read “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis in 2014. I believe we are all better than our worst mistake, that we are all deserving of second chances. Prisons and police often make our communities less safe. The rate of incarceration in Alabama, much higher than the national average, was already a crisis. This pandemic has made the lives of incarcerated people- who already suffer from higher rates of chronic illness and depression and face violence every day- even worse. Now, more than ever, I call on Birmingham’s political leaders to follow the lead of organizers on the frontlines of this crisis demanding the immediate release of people being held in pre-trial detention. 

Birmingham, can we go further?

Community organizers across the country are putting the pressure on elected officials to lessen the number of people behind bars and it is working. In Tampa, Florida, county Sheriff Chad Chronister released 164 nonviolent offenders from jail. District Attorney’s in San Francisco CA and Boulder CO are also taking steps to release nonviolent offenders and pretrial detainees. Even in Alabama, circuit judges in three counties (Chilton, Elmore and Autauga) have called for the release of some inmates with bonds less than $5,000. These are all examples of different elected officials using their power to protect all people from the spread of the coronavirus.

Birmingham, can we go further? Sheriff Pettway, I remember, when you were running for office, talking to you at the Woodlawn Street Market and you didn’t have much to say about my lack of trust in police in this city. If your mission is to “preserve peace”, what action will you take to release nonviolent offenders in Jefferson County so they can be safe and at home during this pandemic? 

Danny Carr, as District Attorney, what will you do to end pretrial detention and cash bail systems now and in the future? 

Mayor Woodfin, how will you change the language we use around safety and imagine a city where everyone is able to thrive — a city with fewer police and more job opportunities? A city with less pollution and more public transportation? A city ready to address a worldwide pandemic like this?

Steve Marshall, as Alabama’s Attorney General, I call on you to end pretrial incarceration for every community member recently accused of a crime by releasing them on their own recognizance without restrictions. In addition, it is essential to provide medical furlough and immediate release options for incarcerated people who are elderly, pregnant and or who have serious chronic medical conditions, mental illness and disabilities. For those who remain incarcerated, provide people with access to free preventative measures, free medical testing, free treatment and free phone calls. 

Finally, Diane Witte, as Immigration Customs Enforcement Southeast Field Office Director, I call on you to cease ICE enforcement and allow individuals who have “ICE holds” to be released regardless of country. Release ALL detainees from the Etowah County Detention Center so they too can remain safe and comply with the shelter in place ordinance. While the officials I’ve named thus far hold immense power in relation to these demands in Alabama, I believe all of our elected officials have the power and responsibility to their constituents to work toward making these demands a reality to protect residents of Alabama facing the highest risk of infection. Imagine what could happen if Alabama led the fight to end the prison industrial complex. Imagine people safely in their homes with food, electricity, and safe water. This is possible. Birmingham has been creating mutual aid networks and there are many people ready and willing to ensure that people’s needs are met. We need our elected officials on the side of the people now more than ever.

When we listen to the voices and solutions of those who inhabit these realities, we protect and ensure safety for all, not just the few.

This pandemic is illuminating and exacerbating systemic issues that have been plaguing communities across the world for a long, long time. Millions of people were in crisis before COVID-19 spread like wildfire and brought “business as usual” to a screeching halt. I hope that going forward, Alabama’s leaders prioritize and think deeply about how COVID 19 is impacting the most vulnerable in our community: those who are homeless, those in prisons, jails and detention, poor people, service industry folks and so many more people who were barely surviving before this pandemic flipped this country, and the world, upside down. When we listen to the voices and solutions of those who inhabit these realities, we protect and ensure safety for all, not just the few. Now more than ever, it is strikingly apparent just how interconnected and dependent we all are on each other, so I ask you not to act out of fear, but to extend grace.

Meagan is a baker at a small business in Birmingham who also co-owns the Burdock Book Collective– an intersectional feminist bookstore.