By Jocelyn Simonson
Collective movement struggles during the twin crises of COVID-19 and the 2020 uprisings have helped blur the concepts of public safety and public health.
These movements have shown how all of our public health and all of our public safety suffers when we use the police, prosecution, and prisons to solve our collective problems. Their collective resistance to the status quo underscores how these terms — public health and public safety — too often carry with them an exclusionary understanding of which “public” matters.
Traditionally, to express concern for public safety implicates a focus on limiting individual “criminal activity,” and an accompanying wish for more and better policing, prosecution, and incarceration.
But, in the last decade, thanks in large part to social movements like the Movement for Black Lives, a different understanding of public safety has risen to the fore. People directly affected by the carceral state, who have lived out its public health consequences in devastating ways, have, for years, urged us to redefine safety. They have shown, through their own community-based health strategies, how replacing the harms of the carceral state with investment in health, housing, and education can lead to safety for everyone.
This rising concept of public safety highlights the ways in which people can feel safer when they are provided with the health care, housing, infrastructure, and social services necessary to help them thrive. And, conversely, it demonstrates the harm of tethering public attention on safety to the carceral state and to individual responsibility, rather than non-carceral alternatives and collective care.
At the same time, social movements are helping to shift our understanding of public health, enlarging it to encompass the collective public health harms of the carceral state and to understand the “public” whose health matters as including those who are incarcerated, their families, their communities.
The Carceral State
Prisons and jails are the center of a public health crisis, a longstanding crisis only amplified by the spread of COVID-19. The harms of this carceral crisis spill out of prison walls and into directly impacted communities.
For example, just this month, the Prison Policy Initiative quantified what movements like the #FreeHer campaign of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls have long shown us through their organizing and collective action: that the children and loved ones of people who are incarcerated suffer in quantifiable ways, including having shorter life expectancies, and poorer physical and mental health.
Or consider the clarion calls of bail funds since the spring of 2020, epitomized by the hashtag #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth: a demand to release people from detention centers and local jails for the benefit of public health because the unmitigated spread of COVID-19 implicates all of our health.
Or view the video put together by the Coalition to End Money Bond in Illinois — a coalition of groups including the Chicago Community Bail Fund, the Illinois Justice Project, and the Believers Bailout — to illustrate the ways in which it has fought during the pandemic to “protect public health through decarceration.” As the Coalition describes in an accompanying report, its members have engaged in multiple tactics of resistance against the carceral state during the COVID-19 crisis: open letters to officials with the ability to release people from jails and prisons, call-in campaigns, car caravan protests, federal lawsuits, prayer vigils, courtwatching, and mass bailouts of people in pretrial detention, all of which done with the goal to #FreeThemAll.
This collective resistance was done in solidarity with organizing within jails and prisons, where incarcerated people rose up through hunger strikes, work stoppages, riots, and other collective actions — whether it was writing “Help Us” with soap on the windows of the detention center, or finding ways to share their stories and experiences with the public on the outside.
Bail funds, bailouts, defense campaigns, and inside organizing: these abolitionist tactics have for years been connecting the wellbeing of incarcerated people to the wellbeing of the communities from which they come. And, during the pandemic, they have pushed the larger public to question the quick assumption that public safety means policing and incarceration.
This blurred line between public health and public safety has emerged in pointed terms in the last two years in the fight over budgets, whether at the local level in calls to “Defund the Police,” or in federal pushes to focus federal money on non-carceral means of promoting health and safety. These demands bring together searing critiques of public safety and public health, drawing attention to the connections between the two.
Take, for example, the People’s Budget-LA coalition, a formation of more than 50 community-based organizations that came together in 2020, and again in 2021, to engage with the city’s budget process.
These groups built on decades of local organizing seeking the
“Freedom to Thrive” through an Invest/Divest strategy: invest in communities, and divest from the carceral state.
Rather than stick with the traditional idea of a “public safety” budget dedicated to policing and punishment, the allied grassroots groups proposed a new budget category, that they called “Reimagined Community Safety,” which includes funds for restorative justice and social services outside of the criminal system. By doing so, these activists exposed the wide gulf between the city’s view of how to spend the people’s money, and what they term “the people’s” view of where their taxes should be spent: on health care, on housing security, on free transportation, on direct aid to poor people. No longer could the city lay an indisputable claim to the definition of safety. A new definition emerged, one that legislators and the public alike must contend with; and new questions were put before the legislators: what do safety and health mean? And do the police really keep the people safe?
After the People’s Budget presentation before the LA City Council, the Council voted to cut the LA Police Department budget by $150 million. While this was just a small fraction of the LAPD’s overall budget, and, indeed, in the next year the City Council increased the police department budget, movement pushes like that of the People’s Budget are also revelatory.
This public, collective contestation over the meaning of safety, the meaning of health, and, at a more basic level, which “people” are part of the “public,” continues to reverberate throughout local political contests. Although Los Angeles might be the most expansive “People’s Budget” in recent years, it is far from the only one. In Nashville, in Oakland, in Sacramento, in Minneapolis, in Somerville, in Lansing, and more, groups are getting together for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 budget seasons to create budgetary documents.
People’s Budgets’ creation of new budgetary categories, bail funds’ call to #FreeThemAllforPublicHealth, uprisings inside of jails and detention centers: these methods of collective contestation all require that we openly debate whether policing and incarceration actually do keep us safe and healthy.
They take us out of the courthouse, stationhouse, or prison in their search for safety, and they shine a light on the devastating health consequences of the status quo. They compel us to imagine and seek out a different world, possibly one in which these institutions are abolished entirely and replaced with new ways for the government to help people keep each other safe and healthy.
For example, just this past June, Congressperson Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced the “People’s Response Act,” co-sponsored by 20 members of Congress and endorsed by 70 organizations.
This proposed legislation would create a “public safety division” within the Department of Human Health and Services focused on “non-carceral, health-centered investments in public safety.”
These shifting ideas of public safety and public health, however, are open for contestation. Predictably, backlash has followed, often with devastating consequences. Many local jurisdictions, as well as the federal government, have increased their spending on the police.
In New York, Governor Cuomo and the legislature rolled back bail reform, sending more poor people to jail just as the pandemic began to rage. Officials at the Bureau of Prisons granted only 38 of 31,000 requests for compassionate release in the first thirteen months of the pandemic. By December 2020, one in five incarcerated people in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19 — a rate more than four times higher than the general population — and 1,700 had died from it. Jail and prison populations are rising once again. And President Biden seems poised to send people released during the pandemic back to the violence of federal prison.
These official acts — to fund the police, to arrest more people, to charge them with crimes, to put them in jails and prisons — depend on an understanding of public health in which the “public” does not include the people held in cages and subjected to violence there. It is an understanding that cannot be squared with social movements’ calls to recognize that all of our health and safety is tied up with the health and safety of the most marginalized.
Jocelyn Simonson is a Professor at Brooklyn Law School. She is @j_simonson on Twitter