There’s no karmic justice in an illness that will indiscriminately infect thousands of people who are locked behind bars.
Following the reports on Sunday that 68-year-old rapist Harvey Weinstein had tested positive for the coronavirus in a New York prison, there was some schadenfreude on social media. Celebratory dancing memes appeared. People spoke of “karma.” Others bemoaned the possibility that the virus might kill the serial abuser too soon, delivering unjust relief from his 23-year sentence.
There might indeed exist some hypothetical metaphysical comeuppance — maybe if President Donald Trump contracted a case of Covid-19 from shaking hands with fascistic Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — but Weinstein’s infection is less a karmic justice than a window into a sprawling injustice: the increasing inevitability of sickness for many thousands of incarcerated people, held together in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
The desire to see Weinstein suffer in a cell should not draw attention away from the more pressing and urgent need to free aging, infirm, and vulnerable people from incarceration.
Although unconfirmed, it is likely that Weinstein contracted the virus at Rikers Island jail, where he was held until a transfer to Wende Correctional Facility last week. In New York City, where at least 29 incarcerated people and 17 staff in the jail system have been infected by the coronavirus, largely in the Rikers complex, the number of cases is expected to skyrocket with deadly consequences.
I wish Weinstein — a putrid individual and ur-example of patriarchal violence — only ill. But the desire to see him suffer in a cell should not draw attention away from the more pressing and urgent need to free aging, infirm and vulnerable people from incarceration, as the coronavirus is set to ravage these unprotected populations. In this pandemic moment, the need to free as many people as possible from the U.S.’s glutted prison system is a public health and social justice imperative. Despise Weinstein as we might, there’s nothing salutary about his contraction of the virus, which is a reflection of the pandemic’s perilous spread within prisons.
Hundreds of people have already been granted early or compassionate release from jails and prisons around the country as a response to the spread of the coronavirus — recognition that the pandemic will explode among prison populations, placing incarcerated people in grave peril.
On Sunday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the release of 23 older prisoners and said he was considering releasing hundreds more. The city, meanwhile, holds thousands in dorm-like incarceration, with gravely insufficient hygienic — let alone social distancing — capabilities. That de Blasio is slowly working toward releasing several hundred people, then, is an indication of how release numbers on a city, state, and national level remain woefully insufficient.
The toothless oversight body of the New York City Board of Correction, for example, has demanded that officials order the release of 2,000 people in custody city jails, including those over 50 years old; those with health conditions such as lung and heart disease; those being held for parole violations, such as missing a curfew; and those serving sentences of less than a year.
And on Sunday, dozens of Rikers inmates refused to leave their dormitories to report for work duties or meals — a strike against the dire treatment inmates are receiving as the coronavirus spreads through the jail. Their demands were not radical: They merely echoed the calls of the Board of Correction.
A healthy Weinstein, with a negative coronavirus test, would probably not have benefitted from the sort of moves the board and incarcerated people themselves are asking for: Though elderly, his conviction was recent and came with a hefty sentence. But that is not to say that he deserves to become brutally ill behind bars with a virus that, by its very nature, will not affect him alone.
This is the problem with celebrating any prison illness: The existence of vile figures like Weinstein, seemingly deserving of the worst of fates, should be no hindrance to the enactment of blanket mandates to release vast numbers of incarcerated people.
The response to the pandemic has made clear what prison reform advocates and abolitionists have long known: If it is deemed safe to release thousands of incarcerated people during a crisis, then the “public safety” grounds for their imprisonment were always spurious. Yet supporters of prison abolition have long been challenged with the question of serial rapists and murderers: If not prison, what to do with them? Weinstein, a seemingly remorseless repeat abuser, is the very sort of predator that such defenses of carceral justice are built upon.
For victims of despicable predators like Weinstein, the notion that the pandemic might lead to their convicted abusers to be free is no doubt a difficult one. Many women had publicly celebrated Weinstein’s lengthy sentence as a crucial step in the struggle against structural sexual violence. The desire to see a serial abuser locked away is an understandable one.
Yet I have not been alone in the #MeToo era in challenging carceral feminism – or the reliance on the inherently racist, masculinist, and violent prison system — as the correct antidote to patriarchal sexual violence. As Melissa Gira Grant noted in the New Republic following Weinstein’s sentencing, the prison system “doesn’t take sexual violence seriously because it runs on sexual violence.” And as activist and organizer Mariame Kaba has stressed, “Prison isn’t feminist.”
On the same day that news of Weinstein’s illness was made public, I received a message from an incarcerated contact on Rikers Island. He said that in his building complex, 52 incarcerated people had already been quarantined. When fellow prisoners asked about maintaining “social distancing” in a crowded dormitory of over 45 beds, each standing only 2 feet apart, they were told to sleep head to toe.
The sort of liberal carceral feminism, which finds mirth in Weinstein’s infection, fails to look at criminal justice as a violent system. Weinstein’s reported coronavirus case, like every other, was not contracted in isolation — and it cannot be cheered in isolation. The conditions of its spread behind prison walls are too intolerable.