In fact, in the United States, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the Constitution states that slavery is legal in prisons. It’s not something high school history teachers tend to dwell on. But it’s the reason you see those shocking, seemingly “un-American” headlines, like last summer, when crews of prison inmates who are paid under $6 per hour to fight fires in California were depleted, because prisons were overrun with coronavirus. The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” It feels un-American, but it’s right there in our founding documents.
Prisons and jails around the country have become petri dishes in which incarcerated people are suffering penalties far beyond just captivity. As of March 23, almost 400,000 people in prisons had tested positive for COVID, according to The Marshall Project, which has been tracking the disease in prisons since March.
Glamour spoke to the women leading the Gasping for Justice campaign about their work defending one of the most marginalized groups of people in the country—work that’s punishing and distinctly unglamorous. They told us why the people in Prince George’s County Jail need us, badly, to be their voice.
Glamour: How do you find the will to do this hard, distressing work?
Olevia Boykin, attorney at Civil Rights Corps: We are in a pivotal point in a historic movement around the country. I think people are starting to see that all Black lives matter, and that includes incarcerated ones. We started Gasping for Justice to share these stories with the world, to shine a light on the crisis happening in this jail, and in jails across the country.
Fiona Apple: If you’ve suffered, you can be empathetic. And when you’re empathetic, it’s impossible to turn away. To be very honest, I think that the things that have happened in my life with sexual assault, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse—all these kinds of abuses by men, and some things that I am not allowed to talk about and some things that I have to lie about—it puts this anger in me that I can’t save myself. I couldn’t save myself but maybe helping or trying to help somebody else feels as close to saving yourself as you can ever get. Because if you can help them, it does make you feel better, even if it’s not your issue that was solved, it heals you. And I would presume to say that lots of other women probably come from a similar place, that you’ve experienced a lot, and you just don’t want to let bad things happen to other people. It brings a lot up when you see other people being ignored or people being disbelieved.
Why is this group of incarcerated people suing?
Katie Chamblee-Ryan, attorney at Civil Rights Corps: The vast majority of people in the jail are pretrial, so they have not been convicted of anything, they are legally innocent, and they have pending charges. For the majority of the pandemic, the jail has locked people down 23 hours a day—these are solitary confinement conditions. They get one hour out of their cell, some get even less. The hour could be in the middle of the night, and it is your only time when you can call your family, and your lawyer, and shower, and spend any time outside, and it’s the only time anyone will give you any cleaning materials to clean. This violates the Constitution. [A representative for the jail told Glamour: “During the peak of the pandemic, detainees received an hour of recreation time that rotated each day.”]