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Haverford Must Endorse the Free People Strike and Start Fighting for Decarceration, Now.

Editor’s note: All opinion pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the authors. Rethink Incarceration is a student organization dedicated to abolishing the police and prisons, current and former members of which are writing as Rethink Incarceration x Free People Strike.

Artwork by Damon Locks

We have a responsibility to care for our community members, and that includes incarcerated people. When the government demonstrates disregard for incarcerated people’s lives, we have a responsibility to work in solidarity with prisoners and hold elected officials accountable.

When asked about supporting the Free People Strike in a recent interview with The Clerk, Jesse Lytle, the Vice President and Chief of Staff of the College, said “I’m not seeing a direct connection [between decarceration efforts during the pandemic] and being safe on campus at Haverford… We don’t want to conflate general public health risks across the whole Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with local public health risks on Haverford’s campus.” This statement reflects a failure of imagination, and a limited approach to keeping Haverford community members safe. Incarcerated people are among the most at risk from COVID-19 due to close quarters, shared facilities, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), vastly insufficient healthcare and testing, and rampant abuse and neglect from prison guards and administrators. Prison employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than the general outside population, and are thus more likely to spread the virus to their surrounding communities. As Haverford College Assistant Professor of Health Studies Anna West observes, “Prisons, like colleges, are not bubbles, but rather networked institutions.” To say that what happens in Pennsylvania prisons is not connected to what happens on Haverford’s campus is fiction from a public health perspective, and puts forth an incredibly disappointing idea of justice. Haverford must not act as if it is separate from the wider community.

We write this article today with the aim of publicizing and explaining our demand, now standing for a month, that Haverford College release an official statement endorsing the Free People Strike and immediately take steps to push for decarceration in Pennsylvania.

What is the Free People Strike?

Governor Wolf signed a reprieve order on April 10, 2020, making 1,800 individuals in Pennsylvania prisons eligible for release – but as of last week, only 146 had been released. In response, several courageous people began a hunger strike on May 28th, demanding action from the governor. This was the beginning of the Free People Strike. Having now transitioned to a rolling hunger strike due to government indifference, the Free People Strike is demanding that the governor expand his reprieve order to free as many people as possible, beginning with those who are most at risk to COVID-19 due to age or medical conditions, those who have served 75% of their minimum sentence, and those who are incarcerated for technical parole violations. Here is a full list of the demands of the Free People Strike.

In the last six weeks, dozens of people, including the authors of this op-ed, have joined the hunger strike, both for one-day solidarity fasts and as longer-term participants in the ongoing hunger strike. This campaign builds on years of work towards decarceration and prison abolition, which many Haverford students have been steadily engaged in through student groups like Rethink Incarceration. As current students and alumni, we are now calling on Haverford to make an unambiguous public statement supporting the Free People Strike and to become active in the fight for decarceration.

Artwork by Roger Peet

Wendy Raymond, BSRFI’s Open Letter, Haverford’s “Mission and Values,” and Decarceration

President Wendy Raymond, as the public face of Haverford College, has stated her personal and professional commitment to anti-racist work. Black Students Refusing Further Inaction (BSRFI) have put forth a comprehensive list of demands for transformation at Haverford. Although President Raymond and the college have responded with statements claiming to support BSFRI’s demands, it is clear that the college must bring credibility and action to the words students have heard from the administration thus far. A public statement from President Raymond and the college, supporting the Free People Strike, is one small opportunity to demonstrate its commitments. Making a continuing commitment to decarceration work is another.

We have been asked by the administration, however, why Haverford in particular should make this statement: how does this issue relate to Haverford’s mission and values as an educational institution?

President Raymond has written that Haverford’s “mission and values” are manifested in four principles (quotes from her April 23 Haverford Update, sent by email to Haverford students and faculty):

First, that “we will provide our students with an excellent liberal arts education.” Haverford does not only provide education through classes, but through example, by seeking to embody what community responsibility and civic minded action should look like. By vocally supporting the Free People Strike, Haverford can broaden our understanding of community beyond the ivory tower and challenge its students to build relationships with and enact their responsibility to those outside of the “haverbubble.” By focusing only on what we deem already within our institutional bandwidth, we limit the possibilities for a more just future and a fuller vision of public health that benefits us all.

Second, that “We will safeguard the health and well-being of Haverford students, faculty, and staff.” Pennsylvania is moving towards re-opening while the coronavirus pandemic is still a major threat to people across the state. As a private institution existing in Pennsylvania – on unceded Lenape land – Haverford faces the question of how to safely bring students back to campus. With the unprecedented dangers of COVID-19, governments and institutions are called to practice collective responsibility. Never before has it been more clear that each person’s safety is connected to the safety of their surrounding communities, including those behind bars. Not only do we have these “external” obligations, Haverford students, faculty, staff, and their families themselves are directly impacted by incarceration. Experts, including the Secretary for the Department of Health as cited in Governor Wolf’s April 10 reprieve order, have said for months that decarceration is crucial to public health. Yet Governor Tom Wolf refuses to make decarceration a priority in Pennsylvania. Social distancing is nearly impossible in prison – to remedy this, prisons in Pennsylvania and across the United States have instituted inhumane lockdowns that keep prisoners in their cells for 23+ hours per day. But recent studies show that prisoners are 550% more likely to contract COVID-19, and 300% more likely to die than those on the outside. The only way to keep people safe is to bring them home, but the governor has failed to do so (see our original letter to Haverford administration and this June 11 article for details). Haverford College has promised to keep its own students, staff, faculty, and other community members safe. To keep our community safe, Haverford must promote the health of all Pennsylvania residents, including incarcerated people, recognizing as previously discussed that prisons and jails are networked institutions that are not separate from their communities.

Third, that “We will contribute to the greater good.” We say that if Haverford is committed to the greater good, as President Raymond suggests in her response to BSRFI’s letter, then it must use its institutional power to fight against the Prison–Industrial Complex, including by publicly and loudly supporting organizations like the Free People Strike who are already doing that work. Haverford’s identity as a Quaker college, specifically places the institution in direct ties with incarceration. As Angela Davis has noted in Are Prisons Obsolete?, Quakers, specifically those in Philadelphia, were responsible for creating and promoting methods of incarceration, including solitary confinement and penitentiaries, that are the backbone of modern-day prison systems. Haverford cannot escape this history given the college’s strong Quaker roots, and therefore has a historical responsibility to advocate for decarceration.

Fourth, that “We will steward the College as a perpetual institution that has a responsibility to future generations of students as well as today’s.” We ask which students? Will Haverford steward itself as a perpetual institution for the education and benefit of wealthy and white students, or will it embrace its responsibility to Black, Brown, and otherwise marginalized students, whose lives may be directly harmed by Governor Wolf’s actions and the continued power of the Prison–Industrial Complex?

Haverford senior staff has asked us why Haverford should make this statement. We ask, what kind of institution does Haverford want to be?

Rethink Incarceration x Free People Strike

Sanjeevi Nuhumal ’21,
Ellis Maxwell ’20,
Aarushi Mohan ’20,
Caleb Conner ’20,
Ernest Keefer-Jacques ’21,
Oishi Bardhan ’20,

Thank you to Assistant Professor Anna West and Visiting Assistant Professor Anne Montgomery from Haverford’s Health Studies department, for providing insightful feedback and contributing sources and analysis to this article.

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