by Anya Bernhard, Gainesville Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC)
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
The ongoing public health crisis is just the tip of the iceberg of the dysfunction and depravity within the Alachua County Jail.
According to one article from Business Insider, it is estimated that the transmission of COVID-19 is ten times higher in jails, prisons, and detention facilities.
It is impossible to practice social distancing measures inside the Alachua County Jail. Further, even when provided with proper personal protective equipment (PPE), the record shows that there are no guarantees that employees of the Alachua County Jail will comply with basic safety measures.
On Monday, April 27, a group of activists and organizers held a vigil outside the jail in the wake of the devastating news that an individual had died by suicide inside their cell. While outside in the parking lot, the group, all donned with face masks, was confronted by multiple officers of the jail without any PPE. When vigil attendees asked the officers why they were not taking proper precautions, they stated that it was their right to choose to not wear a mask.
This incident exemplifies the utter negligence of the employees at the Alachua County Jail and Sheriff Sadie Darnell’s paltry response to the public health crisis.
Concerned citizens, activists, and organizers made demands as early as March 16 asking Sheriff Sadie Darnell and State Attorney Bill Cervone to take swift action in response to the prospect of COVID-19 entering the jail.
Requests for compassionate release were met with inaction and silence.
As a consequence, four local organizations — the Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub (LEAH), the Gainesville chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), Goddsville Dream Defenders (DD), and the Alachua County Labor Coalition (ACLC) — teamed up to start a community bond fund to bring people being held in the Alachua County Jail home, where they belong.
The issues inside the Alachua County Jail are many and various. For one, arbitrarily high monetary bonds are keeping about 50 percent of the roughly 600 people currently detained in the jail for no other reason than individuals cannot afford to pay the cost of bail.
In other words, half of the people in the Alachua County Jail who are being held pretrial, and have yet to be convicted of any crime, and are thereby presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, have been left languishing in a cell because of their inability to buy their freedom.
What does it say about our community that under the current conditions of the jail, we would rather allow someone to lie in wait of a potentially lethal virus because they cannot pay up?
On the evening of May 4, a young man was released on a bond of $10,000. He was arrested for an incident wherein a police officer asked him for ID, and he identified himself by his first and middle name instead of the name on his state ID, which was not on his person at the time of the incident.
How many University of Florida undergraduates do you see being arrested at Midtown on a Tuesday evening for presenting fake ID? Make no mistake, this young man was criminalized excessively and unjustly by this officer for being black and simply existing. Not only is it absurd that this young man was incarcerated in the first place, but that such action was taken during the ongoing crisis is particularly disturbing.
Arrests are still happening at the hands of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the Gainesville Police Department. People’s lives are being put at risk for “crimes” such as probation violations, drug possession, fraudulent credit card use, resisting an officer without violence, disorderly conduct, and public intoxication.
Instead of throwing people in cages for these incidents, we must turn to the root causes of why people in our community are not getting their fundamental human needs met.
The Alachua County COVID-19 Bond Fund was started in the midst of this public health crisis when the responsible parties, Sheriff Darnell and State Attorney Cervone, failed to act.
However, what the work of the bond fund has revealed is that COVID-19 only exacerbates the failure of the jail, the Court Services program, and the social services in the city and county designated to provide people with basic needs.
The health of those inside the jail is not separate from community health.
As of today, 10 people have been released due to these efforts so far. With your support, we can continue to bring people home. Make a contribution at actionnetwork.org/fundraising/alachua-county-covid-19-bond-fund