Prisons of Perception: Rethinking Justice In & After COVID

Posted on April 24, 2020 | Leni Dworkis, Weissberg Foundation

In my last blog, I used a simple Shakespeare quote to link the classic tale of a long-standing family feud, star-crossed lovers, and – spoiler alert – untimely death to the deepening of systemic racism in this country during the time of COVID. Timely, right? This history of racial segregation and oppression in this country pairs directly with the deeply disproportionate impacts of this pandemic on communities of color, resulting in – you guessed it – untimely death.

The thematic overture of loss is especially present when looking at the current state of our criminal legal system in the midst of this virus, where – just like in Romeo and Juliet – unseen death is entombed, though this time behind the thick walls of prisons, jails, and detention centers. With over 750 confirmed COVID cases at the federal level and growing numbers state-by-state, we can only expect to see an increase in cases and the death toll rise.

We need to act now to change narratives about this system to ones where we value the lives of those who have been impacted by it. Racial disparities are alarmingly present in the criminal justice system and shifting narratives also requires us to consider the complex and multiply constituting ways that racism shows up in arrest data, setting bail, access to counsel, sentencing, parole, probation, and other facets of the system. We must also recognize the compounded trauma that comes with a history of racism, oppression, and criminalization.

COVID-19 has glaringly exposed some of the many holes in the justice system. Prisons, jails, and detention centers are incubators for illness and these facilities are not designed to aptly address health and wellness concerns on any level. Policy recommendations have surfaced nationally and locally pushing for immediate responses to this crisis and associated reformations to systems, which include:

  • Access to healthcare (e.g., doctors, hospitals, and testing);
  • Access to hygiene and sanitization products (e.g., soap, hand sanitizer, bleach, and disinfectant);
  • Access to information;
  • Accessible and affordable virtual and telephonic visitation;
  • Early release, including medical furlough, compassionate release, and clemency;
  • Increased attention to at-risk populations, including youth, older adults, and those with chronic illnesses and immunodeficiencies;
  • Slowing the flow of people into prisons and jails; and
  • Strengthening efforts that address the overincarceration of people of color.

Some major national-level efforts are in-progress: the Justice Roundtable is releasing policy recommendations for youth and adults during and in the aftermath of the pandemic; the Prison Policy Initiative is tracking Department of Corrections statements and responses to COVID; the Justice Collaborative is mapping specific policies across the US that are developing as a response to the crisis; and Humanity Not Cages has released demands for change.

At all levels, our Equitable Justice grantee partners are working for change, specifically change that includes women, girls, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color:

  • African American Policy Forum is hosting online programming, Under the Blacklight: The Intersectional Vulnerabilities that COVID Lays Bare, to engage thought leaders and listeners in discussions about the crisis and its intersectional implications.
  • Black Women’s Blueprint is continuing to operate its Mobile Healing Unit to address the practical needs of survivors of African-decent and educate them about additional mutual-aid efforts during COVID.
  • Bold Futures in New Mexico is leading administrative advocacy with state departments, the Governor’s office, and local governments through identifying strategic pressure points (e.g., access to reproductive health care, decarcerating prisons and jails) for communities of color and marginalized communities to reduce disproportionate harm they may face during this pandemic.
  • College & Community Fellowship compiled a list of COVID-19 resources for their students and community at large with information related to unemployment, housing rights, the federal stimulus bill, healthcare, and more which will be updated in real time.
  • Maryland Justice Project is part of the coordinated Maryland justice response to COVID-19 working with folks across disciplines to encourage the safe release of currently incarcerated people, slow the influx of people into jails and prisons, and enhance the protection of those still incarcerated.
  • Rights4Girls is working to improve the living conditions of youth who remain incarcerated in the District of Columbia by ensuring proper sanitization, entertainment while quarantined, access to education, mental health supports, proper nutrition for those impacted by COVID, and more.
  • Sylvia Rivera Law Project is conducting wellness check-ins with transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming community members and organizing with other New York City based organizations to move resources to those most impacted by the virus.

Despite these efforts, sweeping action on the part of local and federal governments and officials has been slow to come. We – in philanthropy, as public figures – can educate legislators and policy makers and should leverage our influence and wide-reaching networks to push forward advocacy for change. We need to amplify the voices of those incarcerated to shine a (very bright) light on much needed reform. We must widely and accurately broadcast these stories to change the hearts and minds of the American public. We have to find a way to inject this carceral system with dignity and to restore the humanity of those who are justice involved.

Let’s not become entrapped in miseducation and remain cold in our distance to these struggles, but instead look to the harsh realities of a racist, classist, and oppressive (in)justice system. For me – I’m reflecting on another Shakespeare quote as I consider the ways I can help re-write narratives: “There is nothing so confining as the prisons of our own perceptions.”


Leni Dworkis is the program manager at the Weissberg Foundation, where she provides robust programmatic support to Grantee partners seeking to advance social, racial, and criminal justice. Prior to joining the foundation in 2019, she served in research and programmatic capacities at the Vera Institute of Justice where she contributed to strategic development initiatives, measurement and evaluation efforts, and exploratory investigation around reaching and serving under-resourced and marginalized crime victims. Her long-standing passion for working with and giving voice to underserved populations has fueled her interests in breaking down oppressive barriers and rebuilding social structures to better meet the needs of all individuals.