One Way to Fight Coronavirus: End Cash Bail

Recently, I was joking with a homie who also did time that the social distancing directives around the world mean people are getting a snippet of what a prison lockdown is like. I experienced my first lockdown after less than a week inside: Two friends pummeled a third, a former friend. Within seconds of COs breaking up the fight, the rest of us were ordered into our cells until hours later.

During that time some of us did push-ups, others laid on their cots and read, some used the time to write letters or look at their legal work; a few napped, and most of us did a mixture of them all until the jail unilaterally decided that it was safe for us to come back out.

Social isolation is the current fate of most people in this country, and we are all tussling with the dual stressors of our newfound isolation and fear of the virus. But the millions of people in jails throughout the U.S. who can’t afford bail are facing a form of isolation that’s much more severe. If you think it’s hard to share your apartment with your spouse, trying stepping into your bathroom for the next two weeks, along with hundreds of other people, all while a pandemic is preventing your family from being with you during this time of crisis. And that’s just to get your day in court.

Even before the current crisis, states like Alaska, California, and New Jersey had taken the humane position of ending cash bail, so that those awaiting trial no longer have to pay up in order to leave jail while they wait to see if they are proven guilty or innocent. New York followed suit in January, but rolled back key bail reforms last week via a budget package.

Now that the country is battling coronavirus, it’s even more important to end cash bail. Jails are full of public health hazards: A large number of people share a small space, often with limited access to soap, so infectious diseases can spread rapidly. In addition, the prison population is aging quickly — the number of incarcerated people over 55 has ballooned by 400 percent since 1993 — increasing the risk of serious illness. Holding people before trial increases the likelihood that they’re exposed to the novel coronavirus, making them more likely to spread COVID-19 in the prison and after their release.

We’re already seeing this spread take place. As of April 6, more than 600 prisoners and staff members at Rikers Island have tested positive for COVID-19. Four staff members and one incarcerated person have died. Nearly 300 prisoners and staff have tested positive in Cook County, Illinois, and at least two two inmates have died of the virus in Louisiana. And while some cities, like Los Angeles, are responding by releasing, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has opted to place all 167,000 federal prisoners under lockdown. While the world is in search of a vaccine, the commonsense reaction would be to reduce places of contagion.

Humans are not viruses.

Still, some are opposed to bail reform, citing a jump in crime numbers from the first two months after New York ended the practice as evidence of the need to repeal bail legislation. Lawmakers in Alaska attempted to roll back their bail reform legislation after just a couple of months. Law enforcement and the bail bonds industry have mounted claims of an uptick in crime in the brief implementation of the new laws. Their underlying argument is that the world of criminals has been studying new bail laws and conspired to take advantage by committing more crimes while awaiting their day in court. Lies and fear cajole the public into believing that bail reform is criminal justice reform going too far. Even progressive Democrats backpeddled.

Less than six months is not enough to prove ending money bail causes any increase in crime.

New Jersey ended cash bail in 2017 and has seen major crime and pretrial populations fall by double-digit percentages. Offenses like robbery and homicide are down by 30 percent, and there were “6,000 fewer people incarcerated under criminal justice reform on October 3, 2018 compared to the same day in 2012.”

But now those statistics are backed with something: The tiniest shred of experience. The country has gone through self-imposed quarantines, governmental prohibitions on gatherings of groups larger than 10, and containment zones that could make it easier to understand the experience of incarceration even without studying those numbers.

Should innocent until proven guilty people, like you, be isolated in a cage?

Have we forgotten the motivation behind bail reform in America? A 16-year old child, Kalief Browder, committed suicide because of the trauma associated with his indigence. He spent two years in jail because he could not afford bail. Prison beat his soul physically and emotionally. The country was horrified. Jay-Z made a documentary about him. There was a collective awakening that the concept of money bail was an arcane law that penalized poor people who came into contact with the criminal legal system. Elected officials were championing the cause for bail reform. And yet for some reason, we stopped.

The inhumanity of the notion that bail reform will be rescinded, especially in the era of COVID-9, should compel us to question our civil society. We should want fewer people contained in the petri dish of incarceration in order to prevent the spread of the disease, and in order to prevent people who literally cannot escape their surroundings from being infected. There’s simply no reason to be holding people in cells where they could contract the disease simply because they are too poor to get out.

Humans are not viruses. And no segment of humanity should be considered dispensable, convicted or not. Ending money bail is efficient and humane and should be allowed more than a just a few months to prove its overall success.



Everything You Need to Know About Today’s Instacart Strike

On March 25, the U.S. became the leading country in the world for coronavirus cases. As of March 30, there were more than 140,000 confirmed cases and 2,400 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.

Cities have all but shut down in response to public health advisories. Millions of people are working from home or other non-office locations in order to honor “social distancing,” leading to a surge in home deliveries for app-based workers like Instacart’s Shoppers, who are tasked with shopping and delivering customers’ groceries. Instacart itself reported that Shoppers have seen on average a 15 percent increase in basket sizes.

However, despite the heightened risk that Shoppers are facing by doing the work that is considered too dangerous for the general public, Shoppers say Instacart hasn’t made much of an effort to protect them from potential transmission or incentivized them to cease working despite the risks it poses.

Instacart initially said it would give two weeks’ paid leave through April 8 to any Shopper who tested positive for the coronavirus, despite the fact that tests are rarely accessible . However, one Shopper TalkPoverty spoke to said that they didn’t know a single person who had received paid sick leave.

In response, Instacart Shoppers nationwide walked off the job March 30, their second strike in four months, and are refusing to return until their demands are met. Because gig workers like Instacart Shoppers work alone, they rarely have face-to-face contact with one another, highlighting how extraordinarily prepared they must be to conduct a large-scale labor action such as this.

In a Medium post announcing the strike, Instacart Shoppers working with labor organization Gig Workers Collective wrote that they were demanding an added $5 of hazard pay per order as well as provision of complimentary sanitation supplies such as cleansing wipes and hand sanitizer, paid time off for Shoppers with preexisting conditions that put them at high risk if they contracted coronavirus or whose doctors advised them to self-isolate, and an extension of these benefits beyond April 8.

“Instacart has turned this pandemic into a PR campaign, portraying itself the hero of families that are sheltered-in-place, isolated, or quarantined,” Gig Workers Collective wrote.

“Instacart has refused to act proactively in the interests of its Shoppers, customers, and public health, so we are forced to take matters into our own hands. We will not continue to work under these conditions. We will not risk our safety, our health, or our lives for a company that fails to adequately protect us, fails to adequately pay us, and fails to provide us with accessible benefits should we become sick.”

Instacart Shoppers can make as little as $7 for up to three orders or $5 for up to five deliveries only, due to the company’s opaque algorithm structure for compensation, and aren’t automatically entitled to employment benefits such as sick leave or health care due to their independent contractor status. Some have argued that they are being misclassified and should be termed employees. In a historic first, the CARES Act, which President Trump signed into law March 27, extended unemployment benefits to gig workers. However, because these benefits are taxpayer-subsidized, they relieve gig companies like Instacart of any legal obligation to provide employee benefits.

Matthew Telles, a veteran Shopper in the Chicago suburbs, said that while he makes himself available on the Instacart app to work for as many as 77 hours a week, the amount of time he actually spends working for Instacart has dwindled since fewer and fewer batches can actually cover his expenses.

“I work anywhere from about zero to eight hours a week for Instacart, and that’s [only] when they pay enough to obtain my secured services,” he said, adding that the pandemic has driven down wages even more.

He explained that since authorities began encouraging people to stay home, Instacart has essentially begun bundling three orders into one by combining multiple “orders” into one batch. That allows the company to elide per-order pricing, leading Shoppers to accept batches that may promise a large amount of money that decreases when they reach the actual register to check.

If a customer asks for, say, 20 unique items, Shoppers are guaranteed a base pay plus tip that’s a particular percentage of the entire order. However, because grocers are now limiting the quantity of particular items one can buy, such as toilet paper and wipes, Shoppers are forced to buy less of a particular item, allowing Instacart to pare down the guaranteed wage and tip for every item a Shopper can’t secure for a customer.

On top of that, Telles added, Instacart is capitalizing upon laid off workers’ desperate need to pay the bills by ramping up their operations. On March 23, Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta announced plans to hire 300,000 new Shoppers in response to anticipated customer demand over the next few months.

“They’re not vetting who’s a Shopper now,” Telles said. “It’s pretty much — if you’re alive, you can be a Shopper.”

Vanessa Bain, a Silicon Valley-based Shopper and founder of Gig Workers Collective, agreed.

“It’s going to be a disaster if [Instacart] is successful in hiring 300,000 people,” she said. “Veteran Shoppers are breaking down. The last time I shopped, I had an anxiety attack. And that’s just speaking about veteran Shoppers who are used to the general stress of the job. I can’t imagine what it’s like for new people just getting their footing. It’s really uncharted territory, shopping during the middle of a pandemic. People aren’t respecting social distancing in grocery stores.”

Bain added that because she lives with multiple elderly people who are at high risk of contracting coronavirus, she hasn’t shopped since March 13.

We’re out here risking our lives.

Sarah Clarke, another Gig Workers Collective organizer, said Instacart was capitalizing upon the divide between its corporate employees, who are guaranteed benefits such as health insurance and remote work, and that of Shoppers, whom many cities and local governments consider “essential workers” but aren’t treating as such.

“Instacart knows there are workers who can afford to stay at home and shelter in place, and then there are workers who absolutely need the money and who will work under any conditions because they have to,” Clarke said. “But you can’t really fault someone who’s working while they’re sick if they absolutely need to [to pay their bills].”

Above all else, however, all three organizers TalkPoverty spoke to said that the strike was being conducted out of concern for Shoppers’ customers, who bear the brunt of the risks they say Instacart is forcing them to shoulder by not guaranteeing basic sick leave and protective equipment.

“If [Shoppers] get the virus, most likely we will pass it on to customers,” Clarke said. “Lots of Shoppers are living in fear because they’re terrified they’ll pass it on to customers.”

“We’re the people customers interface with,” Bain said. “Most people who have ordered [from Instacart] are doing so to comply with the shelter in place, and to mitigate the risk of spreading disease. It’s literally now a matter of public health and safety.”

“It’s reckless,” Telles stated, speaking for himself, not the strike organizers. “We’re out here risking our lives. If I were a state official, I’d bar Instacart from my state.”

Following the strike announcement, Instacart almost immediately updated its policies. In an email to TalkPoverty, the company said it had extended its paid leave through May 6 to anyone who had been ordered by a state, local, or public health official to self-isolate or quarantine, but made no mention of Shoppers’ demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) or added hazard pay. Instacart added on Sunday that it would allow customers to set their own default tip payment, but workers said it’s not enough: The company is still refusing hazard pay and expanded sick pay.

But it’s too little too late, Bain said.

“We all have the potential of becoming vectors. Everyone’s a stakeholder. The stakes are very different from normal working conditions. Nobody should be against the idea of workers having safety measures to keep their customers alive and themselves safe.”

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify Instacart’s compensation structure for batch orders. 



Addiction Treatment Clinics Struggle to Keep Up with COVID-19

I just watched my husband run out the door. Not straight to his job as a cook, since his restaurant is shut down during the pandemic, but to his opioid treatment provider—a facility legally allowed to dispense methadone for the treatment of opioid addiction—so he can get his daily dose before the doors close for the day.

He still has to go every single day to get his medication, without which he would go into weeks of painful opioid withdrawal. My husband is one of hundreds of thousands of people across the country who rely on medications like methadone and buprenorphine to curb addiction to opioids and stay out of withdrawal, and who are now wondering whether they are going to continue to have access during the novel coronavirus pandemic, or risk being exposed to the virus by visiting facilities daily.

The short answer is yes, facilities that prescribe and dispense these medications are continuing to run, and patients should not lose access to medications for opioid use disorder during this crisis. Methadone and buprenorphine are classified by the World Health Organization as essential medicines, which means continued access to them should be a priority. Various government agencies have issued guidelines and legal exceptions to a number of rules and regulations that usually limit access to these medications, in the hope of reducing visits to clinics.

But, of course, there’s a longer and far more complex answer as well.

Although methadone and buprenorphine treat the same disorder in relatively similar ways, they are governed by vastly different sets of rules and regulations. “On the [buprenorphine] side, the minimum you tend to see prescribed is a week. It would be easy in that case to give those patients a two-week prescription or call in an extra script with a refill. On the [methadone] side, that’s where it gets hairy,” said Zac Talbott, president of the National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery (NAMA-R), who also has direct experience as a patient and running facilities that provide these medicines.

Buprenorphine can be prescribed by any doctor or advanced practice registered nurse who has taken an eight-hour waiver course. That means patients can access it in a number of settings including primary care, psychiatry, gynecology, or addiction treatment facilities. Methadone, on the other hand, can only be dispensed for addiction treatment from a licensed opioid treatment provider (OTP), commonly referred to as a methadone clinic. It is governed by a complex web of rules, regulations, and policies that come from federal agencies, state authorities, and individual clinic directors. Since methadone is a better option for people with higher tolerances to opioids, and doesn’t require patients to go into withdrawal before starting it, it’s essential that both medicines are available.

“There’s going to be a broad variety in the way OTPs respond,” said Talbott. “Patients need to realize this could vary from state to state because of state authorities.”

The response is as varied as opinions on addiction.

Across the nation, State Opioid Treatment Authorities, who make state-level decisions about medications for opioid use disorder, have been looking to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), for guidance on how they can respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak. This agency governs the rules around making medication available to be taken at home, instead of in a clinic (colloquially called “takehomes”), and many other methadone regulations at the federal level. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the head of SAMHSA and the assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, told TalkPoverty by email that “SAMHSA/HHS are working in an ongoing manner with states and communities facing these issues. We have provided flexibilities to the states to help to assure that those on medications for opioid use disorders continue to get their medication. We have also been working to expand the ability to provide services by telehealth modalities wherever possible.”

Washington state, where the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared in the United States, was the first state to receive the ability to dispense extended takehomes, lasting up to 14 days, to specified populations without first applying for individual permissions like providers must do normally.

“As of the 9th we have essentially put out seven different types of blanket takehome exception requests that programs can request per federal law to allow a large majority of individuals who are considered stable—and that’s determined at the discretion of each program medical director—to allow them to move beyond just daily or close to daily dosing,” said Jessica Blouse, of the Washington State Opioid Treatment Authority. “For buprenorphine there are no federal rules, so [those patients] can be moved to whatever level can be determined as safe.”

But that doesn’t mean all Washington patients will receive these benefits. Tanna, a patient who lives between the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, said she has not been offered any takehome doses. The reason, she was told, is because she has been with that provider just over three months, so she is still considered a new and therefore unstable patient—even though she transferred from another clinic where she had earned a month of takehomes.

She is also required to attend four hours of group therapy each month. Last week, her group had eight attendees and she did not notice any special precautions in place due to the virus.

“The only accommodation they’ve made [in the clinic] is at the dosing window there’s now hand sanitizer, the trash is moved a little bit, nurses wear gloves, and the [dosing] window screen is lowered,” she said.

On March 16, SAMHSA updated its guidelines specifying that all states with declared states of emergency could request blanket exceptions in order to provide stable patients with 28 days of takehome medication, and 14 days of takehome medication for patients considered less stable but still able to safely handle the extra medication. In states without a declared emergency status, each clinic is eligible to apply for similar exceptions for their patients.

The updated guidelines from SAMHSA allow states and providers greater flexibility to dispense takehome medication—but that does not mean that every clinic will utilize that flexibility to its fullest extent, nor that they will apply it to each patient.

“It may come down to the fact that patients will need to be given 14 day supplies,” said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence. “However it should be case by case …We want to let people quarantine to clearly stop the spread of the disease, [but] remember we are dealing with opioids. Opioids in the hands of unstable patients can be dangerous. We don’t want to flood the community with a lot of methadone in the hands of unstable patients who may not be able to deal with the fact that suddenly they have a two-week supply.”

“People who are least likely to get takehomes are people who are new to treatment and people who have unstable housing, unstable psychosocial situations, people who might be continuing to use other substances, people with underlying health concerns; things that mean they have instability in their life. I would argue they are the people who should get takehomes immediately,” said Keith Brown, a harm reduction advocate currently working at the county level in Schenectady, New York on the COVID-19 response. “This is going to get into the argument about which is more dangerous, giving people takehomes they might sell or whatever—but in a public health crisis, people are going to have to make determinations about what makes sense. Having a few hundred people come into a clinic every day is a transmission nightmare.”

It’s impossible to know what every single state and clinic will do with their expanded discretion. Reports coming in from patients and providers indicate the response is as varied as opinions on addiction.

Justine Waldman, the medical director of REACH, a harm reduction-based buprenorphine clinic in Ithaca, New York, has begun offering one and two month scripts to her buprenorphine patients, giving longer scripts to those who have a harder time getting in to the office or who have a history of missing appointments. Her emphasis is on access and patient health over surveillance. The caveat, she stressed, is that this is an entirely new situation that is evolving each day.

“We might decide tomorrow that the way we’re doing it now isn’t working. We are really having to come together and take it day by day,” she said.

Jana Burson, who is the medical director of an OTP in North Carolina, said that while her clinic is not giving most patients extended takehomes, they are utilizing measures to help keep the facility sanitized, and to enforce social distancing while patients are in the building. For example, the lobby chairs have been spaced to be at least six feet apart, and some counselors with smaller offices are moving individual counseling sessions to larger rooms. They are aggressively disinfecting chairs, door handles, countertops, and other shared surfaces.

In a public health crisis, people are going to have to make determinations about what makes sense.

Vanessa, a patient in North Carolina, reported that her clinic was not dispensing any extra takehomes. She normally receives takehomes for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, but was called in this Monday for a drug test and bottle check, a practice observed by some clinics in which they count patients’ takehome bottles. She described her clinic as “really business as usual” besides seeing staff taking patient temperatures. She noted that her temperature was not taken when she stopped by for the drug test. On Thursday morning she texted me an update that she was going to be given seven takehomes, but would have to pay for them out of pocket.

Stephanie, a patient in Pennsylvania, says she has continued to receive her regular six takehomes, but that group meetings and individual counseling sessions have been canceled until further notice. When she pressed for more information, her counselor replied that for the clinic to shut down “it would have to be the end of the world and there would be zombies,” but conceded that they were giving some extra takehomes to medically fragile patients.

Emily, who has hepatitis C, has not been offered any takehome doses by her Lexington, Ky., clinic, but reported that all patients are being stopped upon entering the building and questioned about potential symptoms. People who report feeling unwell are dosed from their cars, and only five patients are being allowed to enter the building at a time. Groups have been canceled, and individual counseling sessions are being done over the phone.

Samantha, a pregnant patient in Central Florida, reported that she was given 13 takehomes and had a doctor’s appointment canceled so she would not have to go in on an extra day.

In South Florida, my husband Ricardo still goes in for dosing every day, but told me his clinic was advising patients to be prepared to pay two weeks in advance should the need for two weeks of takehomes arise. For my husband, that means shelling out $224. For patients at other clinics, the price can vary in either direction, but not typically by much.

My husband’s experience highlights another concern facing patients on these medications. For some, extended scripts mean more money up front. Some methadone patients who pay out of pocket are only able to do so daily, relying on cash tips or weekly paychecks to pay for their medicine. Buprenorphine patients who are used to paying for one or two weeks at a time might not have additional funds for a month-long script. Patients whose medications are covered by grants or insurance sometimes have caps on the amount of doses that can be covered at one time, leaving them to pay out of pocket for extra doses. If they can’t pay, clinics are not required to dose them.

Because buprenorphine prescribing is not burdened with as many stringent regulations as methadone, it is easier for providers to adhere to social distancing recommendations while still keeping patients appropriately medicated. Many providers have reverted to telehealth. On March 17, the Secretary of Health and Human Services lifted restrictions on telemedicine practices that prevented Medicare patients from engaging by using cell phones in homes or shelters. On the same day, the Drug Enforcement Administration also waived requirements that patients starting on buprenorphine have an initial in-person visit, temporarily allowing new buprenorphine patients to engage via telemedicine from the start.

But even with these changes, economically disenfranchised patients may struggle to utilize telehealth options. “Not all of my patients have the right smartphones to do telehealth, or the minutes. When I asked them about doing telehealth, they said no way,” said Waldman.

Like Talbott stressed, the response to this crisis is going to vary between states and clinics, with wide discretion placed in the hands of prescribers and medical directors. It is a situation that is changing by the day, as states and counties continue to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 in their communities and how they wish to respond.

“I think my biggest duty right now is to reassure patients that they will not be abandoned,” said Burson.

Correction: An earlier version of this articles stated that all registered nurses were able to prescribe buprenorphine. Only advance practice registered nurses can prescribe that medication.



San Francisco Tows Cars Over Unpaid Tickets, Even When People Are Living in Them

No one likes paying for a parking ticket. But for 32-year-old MiQueesha Willis, not being able to pay for those parking tickets meant losing the only home she shared with her two-year-old son, Tobias.

It began with a $90 citation. Willis, who is a construction worker, was living in her car with her baby and parked near the worksite, but often couldn’t move her car to avoid parking tickets due to the demands of the job. She could barely scrape together enough money to put $5 in the gas tank to get to work, much less pay for a $90 ticket. Between taking care of Tobias and trying to find stable housing, the ticket became the last thing on Willis’ mind. She told herself she’d pay for it when she could save up enough money.

Then she received a second ticket, and then a third, and a fourth. Over the next few months, she had multiple tickets and late fees that added up to hundreds of dollars she couldn’t afford to pay.

One day, when she returned from work, her car — and all of her belongings — were gone. In San Francisco, accruing five or more unpaid parking tickets meant the car would be towed. If she wanted the old 1997 Lexus back, Willis would have to pay a $537 tow fee and all of her parking tickets. Willis didn’t have the money, and a few weeks later, the tow company auctioned off her four-wheeled home.

Willis’ story echoes that of the more than 1,200 homeless San Franciscans who live in their vehicles and face the threat of having their homes towed by the city. With shelter waitlists that are consistently more than 900 people long, vehicles are often homeless people’s last resort for some semblance of safety and shelter before sleeping directly on the streets.

Losing her car was the start of a downward spiral. Willis found herself constantly asking people she knew if she could stay with them, even for just a couple of nights. Some days it was with her godsister, other days a friend that she knew, but sometimes there was no one to take her in.

“When they took my car, I started trying to sleep on the bus or sleep on BART,” Willis recalls. “I didn’t go to sleep for days because I didn’t have anywhere to sleep.”

The instability led to depression, suicidal ideation, and the loss of her job from the mounting stress of street homelessness.

“It started a never-ending cycle of debt and poverty,” Willis says. “If I was able to keep the car, I would have been able to keep my job.”

The tows and parking citations are viewed as a tool to enforce parking regulations by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency; it wants to deter bad behavior, especially for more serious violations, such as blocking a handicapped zone.

However, for those who are unable to pay those tickets, the city’s form of debt collection for sometimes only a few hundred dollars means losing a family’s most valuable asset, their car— or home. According to a 2019 report by the Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights, 50 to 60 percent of vehicles towed for unpaid parking tickets or unpaid vehicle registration are sold by the tow company.

Tori Larson, an attorney working specifically on this issue, says, “I get calls from people every day who are living in their vehicles. When they get their cars towed, they have to start from zero. It’s a disproportionate punishment for an unpaid fine.”

In 2018, the group filed a lawsuit challenging San Francisco’s practice of towing cars for unpaid tickets. The case argues that the practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The City is actually losing money for enforcing its tow program.

San Francisco, which charges the highest tow fees in the country, discounts tow fees for low-income individuals to $238 dollars per tow. After the first four days in the storage yard, an additional $52 fee incurs each day. That’s not including payment for parking tickets or unpaid car registration that may have gotten the car towed in the first place. The money adds up fast and, for many, could total thousands of dollars. SFMTA tows almost 4,400 of these vehicles each year.

SFMTA has proposed lowering the tow fees to $100, but for low-income and homeless communities, “coming up with $100 is like coming up with a million dollars. People don’t have this money,” says Anne Stulhdreher, director of the Financial Justice Project, which works to reduce the disproportionate impact of fines and fees on low-income communities.

Many Americans would struggle with paying that fee. According to a 2018 report from the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of Americans would be unable to cover a $400 emergency expense, such as a car tow or parking citation.

Stuhldreher has been working with community groups to reduce the burden of towing and parking citations on low-income and homeless communities for the past several years. While she notes that this is an important first step, more needs to be done.

What’s more is that the City is actually losing money for enforcing its tow program. Overall, the City’s tow program loses $4.7 million annually with low-income tows representing about $1.4 million of the deficit. Each tow costs around $299 in city administrative labor and $275 to the tow company, Auto Return, which tows and stores the vehicles. It’s a lose-lose situation for both the city and for those most impacted by the tow fees.

Homeless advocates have long called for a moratorium on the towing of vehicles that people live in, but the significance of this demand has heightened in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. A set of guidelines to respond to the pandemic put forth by the Coalition on Homelessness urges the city to end towing, stating that “these individual accommodations make it possible for people to self-quarantine.”

The vehicles also present a form of stability that would allow people to keep in contact with health care workers, maintain their health, and securely store their belongings, including medical documentation and medication, the organization said.

Last November, San Francisco opened its first safe parking program in hopes of alleviating the struggles that those living in their vehicles face after almost a decade of advocacy from community organizations and vehicularly housed people. However, its 30-car program — which will be terminated at the end of this year — far from meets the need of the hundreds of homeless San Franciscans living in their cars.

Those living in their vehicles not only face the threat of losing their homes to towing, but are also subject to harassment from police. In San Francisco, as with many other cities across the country, vehicle inhabitation is illegal — and could lead to a fine of up to $1,000 or up to six months in jail. Although the penalty is rarely enforced, advocates say police use the threat of the law frequently to force people who are vehicularly housed to move from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“They flash lights on the car, hit your window with a flashlight, and tell you you have to move,” Willis says of the police that would come by late in the night while she tried to get a few hours of rest. There were few places where she could park at night without being towed, ticketed, or told to move. “I didn’t know where to park — I’d park by the water, but I was scared. I tried to park where there were multiple cars so I could be safer.”

MiQueesha is still homeless. She sleeps on friends and family’s couches when they’re able to let her stay there. She’s hoping to finish school at San Francisco City College in construction management, earn her real estate license, and have more time to spend with her son.

With the help of her son’s grandmother, Willis has been able to purchase another car that she’s working hard to pay off. This time of year, though, construction work is slow.

She says, “Hopefully, this one isn’t towed.”



The Dirty Secret of New York’s Coronavirus Response: Prison Labor

Thanks to the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, communities across the country are facing a shortage of hand sanitizer, wipes, and related products as people desperately try to stay ahead of an outbreak. In New York State, where the number of cases is steadily growing, the situation is especially serious: Governor Andrew Cuomo just declared a “containment area” in New Rochelle, just outside New York City. In the area, large gatherings are banned and the National Guard will be deployed.

On March 9, Cuomo announced a solution to one element of the supply problem in the wake of New York’s declared state of emergency: The state would start producing its own sanitizer, branded NYS Clean, to get around price gouging and supply issues. To start, 100,000 gallons a week will be distributed in government settings such as schools and prisons (more on that in a moment) as the state increases the speed of production. Cuomo even threatened to make the sanitizer available for commercial sale to counter price gougers, some of whom have already been fined for taking advantage of the public health emergency.

It’s the kind of bold statement designed to make a splash, but there’s little acknowledgement of who is responsible for making the product at speeds that allowed the state to ramp up production so quickly. The product is manufactured by Corcraft, which is the brand name for products produced by  the New York State prison system. “Employees” at Corcraft are incarcerated people making an average of $0.62 an hour.

Corcraft and entities like it across the nation benefit from a literally captive workforce. 50,000 people are incarcerated in New York’s state prisons, and while not all of them work for Corcraft, many do, producing things like license plates, desks, textiles, janitorial supplies, and even eyeglasses. These products are in turn sold to government agencies, educational institutions, first responders, and select nonprofits by Corcraft as a “preferred source.” These entities have to “look to Corcraft first” as a supplier, even if they’re opposed to the use of incarcerated labor.

Across the nation, incarcerated workers generate billions in revenue for the prison system, making pennies on the dollar and in some cases nothing at all for their work. While some might consider it slavery, it’s entirely legal under the 13th Amendment, which permits slavery or involuntary servitude “as punishment for a crime.” Nationwide, incarcerated people pave roads, maintain state parks, fight fires, grow crops, and manufacture scores of items.

Here’s a real bitter twist: According to Keri Blakinger and Beth Schwartzapfel at the Marshall Project, incarcerated people aren’t necessarily allowed to use hand sanitizer in jails and prisons. These workers are making a product they aren’t permitted to protect themselves with, even as conditions in jails and prisons can be extremely dirty, with even basic sanitation challenging. Sinks may be broken, sometimes no soap is provided so incarcerated people have to buy it from the commissary, and facilities are crowded.

Workers are making a product they aren’t permitted to protect themselves with

This is already a dangerous combination for the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis a — which is spread through unwashed hands — and influenza. Many prisoners are also trying to manage chronic illnesses like diabetes and HIV, which can make them vulnerable to infection. The response to concerns about infectious disease may be to “quarantine” sick people in isolation, an unhealthy and dangerous approach to controlling infectious disease that comes with significant mental health effects.

As New York’s Department of Corrections implements COVID-19 policies such as screening visitors, it repeats public health recommendations for “all individuals within its facilities” —  wash frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer when water is not available, keep your hands away from your face, and stay home when you are sick — all of which may be, to put it mildly, a challenge for incarcerated individuals.

Incarcerated people are commonly called upon to take personal safety risks for those who are not in jail or prison, as in the case of firefighters across the West who work alongside professionals in better gear, knowing that their training may not be transferrable to jobs on the outside thanks to their criminal records. Still, asking people to whip up 75 percent alcohol hand sanitizer for the health and safety of civilians while they’re struggling for scraps of soap in the midst of a public health emergency is truly a new low.

Access to tools to prevent the spread of disease and to protect people who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 — such as those living in institutions like jails and prisons — is vital. There’s ample guidance from experts on highly effective ways to protect ourselves, but people in carceral settings can’t access the basic things required, such as sanitation supplies and tissues so they can cover their mouths and noses when they sneeze or cough.

If there’s an outbreak in a prison setting (something that may be inevitable in a confined, unhealthy, unsanitary environment), it will be because of the refusal to make changes to the rules in order to allow people to protect themselves.