Prison Solidarity in a Pandemic

Parole Illinois in a Zoom meeting with IL State Rep. Sonya Harper (center).

The last year has put me at the center of a whirlwind―working with people incarcerated as they are caged with COVID-19 in their midst. I’ve heard harrowing stories from those inside seeing COVID spread rapidly, and those on the outside fearful for their loved ones who must face the deadly virus with little to no medical intervention.  

I published my most recent article in The Progressive Magazine about COVID responses at jails in three communities―Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria. It features the story of Wayne Colson, a friend and a father who was filled with worry as his son sat in the Champaign County jail during the early outbreak of COVID.  

I started working for Parole Illinois in early 2020, just weeks before COVID hit. In April, we held a virtual press conference with testimonies about the spread of COVID inside Illinois prisons that was covered by the Chicago Sun-Times. Parole Illinois co-founder Raúl Dorado gave an eyewitness account from inside Stateville prison: “I witnessed my friends become unresponsive and get carried out on canvas stretchers.”

Parole Illinois is an inside/outside prison campaign founded by men inside Stateville prison, joined by women in Logan prison, and supported by those of us on the outside. In 1978, parole was abolished in Illinois, and in the subsequent years, individuals were given excessively long sentences. The campaign was started by my longtime pen pal Joe Dole, serving life without parole (LWOP) inside Stateville prison. After years of exchanging letters, I began helping Joe publish his articles (like this one and this one), until one of them was read by Shari Stone-Mediatore (pictured above), who is now managing director of Parole Illinois, and, in turn, she hired me as downstate organizer for the campaign.

Most rewarding about working for Parole Illinois is that it has put me in touch with people incarcerated, their families and loved ones. It has been tremendously rewarding.

I continue this work after losing my dear friend, Greg Koger, in March 2020. Greg did ten years in Illinois prisons, more than half that time in solitary confinement. He was the first person to teach me about the horrors of prison. He was released some 15 years ago, but he could never escape that prison cell. Now he is finally free.

This past summer I published an interview with Maya Schenwar and Vikki Law, authors of the new book Prison By Any Other Name, about the failed alternatives to incarceration.

Most of my time has been spent at home with my boy Jake―now 9 years old―playing chess, riding bicycle, and learning to play guitar. While COVID has disrupted our daily life, it has allowed us to become so much closer. It is time well spent. I feel in the future I will actually miss these crazy COVID times.