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How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias

Amy Moran-Thomas 

How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias

How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias

Pulse oximeters give biased results for people with darker skin, and the consequences can be serious.

Oximeters remain another disturbing materialization of how white supremacy has been built into our systems and infrastructures of perception—even programmed into the very machines we rely on to quantify danger when someone can’t breathe.”

COVID-19 care has brought the pulse oximeter  into many American homes. This compact medical device, costing as little as $20, clips onto a fingertip and helps gauge how much oxygen is making it to the blood. When COVID-19 fevers moved through my household earlier this year, everything suddenly revolved around the number on its tiny screen, which reports oxygen saturation as a percentage. Normal readings are in the range of 95 to 100 percent; my husband could only sleep if I stayed up to make sure his readings didn’t plummet into the 70s again. Our doctor said to go back to the hospital  if the device’s reading dropped to 92 and stayed there, but most nights it hovered along that edge. I began to wonder exactly what this object was telling us.

To picture what’s happening inside a pulse ox—as health care providers call it—start by thinking about what’s happening inside your body. Blood saturated with oxygen is bright crimson thanks to iron-containing hemoglobin, which picks up the gas molecules from your lungs to deliver them to your organs. In the absence of oxygen, the same hemoglobin dims to a cold purple-red. The oximeter detects this chromatic chemistry by shining two lights—one infrared, one red—through your finger and sensing how much comes through on the other side. Oxygen-saturated hemoglobin absorbs more infrared light and also allows more red light to pass through than its deoxygenated counterpart. Adjusting for certain technicalities using your pulse, the device reads out the color of your blood  several times a second.

To “see” your blood, though, the light must pass through your skin. This should give us pause, since a range of technologies based on color sensing are known to reproduce racial bias. Photographic film calibrated for white skin, for example, often created distorted images  of nonwhite people until its built-in assumptions started to be acknowledged and reworked in the 1970s ; traces of racial biases remain in photography  still today. Similar disparities have surfaced around several health devices, including Fitbits . How had designers managed to avoid such problems in the case of the oximeter, I wondered? As I dug deeper, I couldn’t find any record that the problem ever was fully fixed. Most oximeters on the market today were initially calibrated primarily for light skin, and they still often reproduce subtle errors for nonwhite people.

“A range of technologies based on color sensing are known to reproduce racial bias.”

In medical and technology communities there is a perception that this bias isn’t a big deal. To understand why, I reached out to manufacturers, doctors, researchers, and government regulators to ask for any updates to these previously documented issues. Many responded along these lines: “The errors haven’t really been dealt with, but here’s why it doesn’t matter.” Others thought the stories that get told about the harmlessness of racial disparities reveal the very opposite : unequal standards that have become normalized. It all matters—the errors, the history that produced them, the future they’re being built into, and the justifications about racism they reveal in U.S. science and medicine.

In 2005 a team of physicians studied  oximetry’s racial bias in critical detail. The group often works at the famous mountaintop Hypoxia Lab , founded at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) by John Severinghaus , inventor of blood gas analysis, who did foundational work in medical devices  for anesthesiology. “In our eighteen years of testing pulse oximeter accuracy,” the team noted in their article, “the majority of subjects have been light skinned. . . . Most pulse oximeters have probably been calibrated using light-skinned individuals, with the assumption that skin pigment does not matter.”

But after hearing about a range of “unacceptable errors in pulse oximetry” among Black wearers, the UCSF study was “specifically designed to determine whether errors at low [arterial oxygen saturation] correlate with skin color.” Since errors don’t tend to show up at healthy oxygen levels, a special protocol is necessary to check accuracy at lower oxygen, which better simulates an actual health crisis. The doctors collected readings with a range of people using several pulse ox models, then checked their readings against a different kind of test based on arterial blood gas, the “gold standard” test for oxygen levels. (The latter measure is more invasive, requiring blood from an artery, which is why the pulse ox is often used as a proxy in hospitals.)

“Most pulse oximeters have probably been calibrated using light-skinned individuals, with the assumption that skin pigment does not matter.”

Crosschecking these two measures over 1,067 data points, the team found a clear pattern of errors. For nonwhite people the machines mostly tended to overestimate saturation levels by several points. The study only included participants who identified as Black or white, but the authors noted that degrees of errors have also been observed among Latinx, Indigenous, and many other nonwhite people. The team’s follow-up study , published in 2007, focused on safety errors for people with “intermediate” skin tones and included a larger group of women. This more detailed data again found a clear pattern: pulse ox “bias was generally the greatest in dark-skinned subjects, intermediate for intermediate skin tones, and least for lightly pigmented individuals.” Racial errors grew significant at lower oxygen levels, starting around 90 and growing widest in the 70s.

In principle, the implications can be troubling. The night we first got a pulse ox, my husband woke up with his oxygen at 77. In their studies of that low saturation range, the UCSF doctors noticed “a bias of up to 8 percent . . . in individuals with darkly pigmented skin,” errors that “may be quite significant under some circumstances.” Thus, for a nonwhite person, a reading of 77 like my husband’s could hide a true saturation as low as 69—even greater immediate danger. But EMTs or intake nurses might not be able to detect those discrepancies during triage. The number appears objective and race-neutral.

Indeed, while the oximeter is a key tool for some patients in deciding when to go to the hospital, it’s also what they use at the hospital. Clinical guidance about giving oxygen tends to be loosely keyed to a certain threshold of oxygen saturation; protocols recommend particular interventions at 88, 90, and 92 percent, for example. Racial errors in these higher saturation ranges tend to be narrower disparities of one to four percentage points, but they still can mislead if they go undetected. In particular situations, another study  notes, errors of that margin “may severely affect the treatment decisions in borderline cases.”

This might seem like a fine point, but medicine is made of fine points that turn into ordinary decisions. Using the UCSF data, one company’s illustrations demonstrate the skin color variability of three brands of pulse oximeters (Nonin, Nellcor, and Masimo) for one of the most common clinical decision points: a reading of 88 percent. Pulse ox readings can also be affected by conditions such as anemia, jaundice, poor circulation, and nail polish. Physicians in a clinic may not distinguish errors stemming from an underlying condition and those caused by the device’s bias on darker skin. The UCSF lab data are revealing on this point. The study participants were “healthy, nonsmoking” Black and white young people in their twenties and thirties, mostly UCSF medical students, none of whom “had lung disease, obesity, or cardiovascular problems.” This pool of participants allowed the researchers to isolate skin color calibration errors alone, eliminating misreadings due to underlying comorbidities.

“Pulse ox bias was generally the greatest in dark-skinned subjects, intermediate for intermediate skin tones, and least for lightly pigmented individuals.”

Most hospital protocols now recommend starting oxygen at 90. Below that threshold damage to vital organs such as the heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys becomes an immediate danger. In a mixed general population, a true blood oxygen saturation of 88 percent would, on average, produce a pulse ox reading of 89 to 90 using the most common meter in hospitals. In that case, guidelines would correctly suggest going on oxygen. But Black patients, equally in crisis at 88, would get an average reading of 91—just above the intervention threshold.

Physicians disagree on the clinical significance of these discrepancies. Do slight racial errors really matter in practice? Like any vital sign, pulse ox readings are one among many factors considered when making a critical care decision. Most caregivers I spoke to noted that a nurse or doctor on careful watch, drawing on a range of other information, would use their training to pick out patterns and place numbers in broader context alongside a patient’s perceived sense of distress. One critical care specialist told me she felt that the errors found by the UCSF studies would not change the care that patients with darker skin receive where she worked. I could imagine how that may be true in particular cases such as hers, but no one had collected reassuring evidence about the topic at her hospital—much less nationally or globally—so I found myself staring at the disquieting graphs of the only systematic data available as she told anecdotes about how she would contextualize such readings. I hung up the phone feeling unsettled by her words: there was “usually” no way this could matter, she said. Her insights helped me formulate a more elusive question: What about those moments that fall outside usually?

In my own experience this spring, the hospital’s pulse ox gave a reading of 91 exactly as I arrived at the ER with trouble breathing. I was told that around 90 might mean I needed oxygen, while 91 meant wait and see. This seemed to be the rule of thumb in use, though it did not appear hard and fast. I did not receive crosschecks such as an arterial blood gas test. Such procedures are much more common in critical care units, but 95 percent of people coping with coronavirus  today never end up there. The ER nursing team around me seemed to be looking at the pulse ox numbers very closely. They were wary about the “happy hypoxia”  associated with COVID-19. Before long my oxygen came up a few points and I was sent home, still with difficulty breathing, now with instructions to keep isolating and buy a pulse ox. I am white, and these calls worked out. But a Black person with the same pulse ox reading at intake could have been at or below the threshold to get oxygen. How would anyone have known for sure?

These concerns don’t end with clinical practice, either. Medicare reimbursement also uses pulse ox measures as key thresholds, with much less nuance than a nurse or doctor. At a reading of 88 or 89, Medicare will reimburse  for oxygen at home, but at 90 it won’t. In effect, this means people with darker skin may have to be sicker in order to qualify for the same treatment as people white skin. This could lead to delays in recovery, worse outcomes, and greater likelihoods of future comorbidities as patients wait for the meter to catch up to bodily realities.

“People with darker skin may have to be sicker in order to qualify for the same treatment as people white skin.”

Some caregivers I spoke with sounded exhausted to field questions about pulse ox biases. They were beleaguered, no doubt, by a thousand other COVID-19 contingencies and more obvious manifestations of inequities. Even if they had never noticed glitches, it could be painful to wonder. Others I spoke to argued that any racial discrepancies at all were simply unacceptable. When people rely on devices for a snapshot, just as with Kodak film, shouldn’t everyone’s picture be equally clear? Anything less widens room for mistakes that may amplify existing inequalities. It creates a situation where hospital care teams need to work around the subtle racial biases of their tools.

How is racism operating here? ” The physician, epidemiologist, and civil rights activist Camara Phyllis Jones urges health practitioners to ask this question throughout their work. In the case of pulse oximetry, errors of slight degrees mean a lot more than they otherwise might because of the larger patterns of inadvertent racism in hospitals  they plug into. Nonwhite patients are already more likely to have identical signs classified as less urgent by physicians , as decades of research documenting unintentional medical racism  shows. Measurement errors falsely indicating that hospitalized patients are safer than they are could further contribute to suboptimal care. As caregivers argue , “Any decision making rooted in implicit bias is detrimental” when “an incorrect assumption could literally mean the difference between life and death.”

Amid problems with unreliable testing for COVID-19, for example, some patients of color report being dismissed from the ER  by doctors attributing their difficulty breathing to anxiety. In fact, in the name of combatting known treatment disparities in ERs, the Association of American Medical Colleges suggests  hospitals “remove as much individual discretion as possible,” instead seeking “objective measures” to help doctors overcome “implicit biases that providers don’t even know they have.” In reality, the policy could further amplify the problem in cases where seemingly objective measures like pulse ox readings themselves display hidden racial bias. What happens when efforts to overcome physician bias rely on devices that are also biased?

On top of this, pulse ox data is a key vital sign being fed into the algorithms that increasingly guide hospital decisions . As reported in Nature  and Science , many algorithms already suggest inadequate care along patterned racial divides: patients of color have to be sicker, on average, in order to receive the same interventions as white patients. They are less likely to be promptly identified for ICU admission, even with otherwise identical profiles. Yet algorithmic tools such as the EPIC “Deterioration Index”  can only aspire to be as good as the instruments feeding data into them. With pulse ox disparities, what are machines learning  from these distorted inputs? The proprietary EPIC Early Warning equation incorporates the Rothman Index , and half of the eight cut-off numbers for oxygen saturation built into that measure are in the range for racial errors. Like the problems magnified by “the coded gaze” of algorithms elsewhere , even small racial disparities could amplify unequal outputs.

Beyond the pulse ox alone, this also matters for other wearable chromatic devices and the algorithms they feed. Pretending that they are colorblind can further amplify how “Racism, Not Genetics, Explains Why Black Americans Are Dying of COVID-19 .” I called my colleague from MIT’s Little Devices Lab , Jose Gomez-Marquez, whose research involves prying open devices to understand their inner workings. He always knows the latest med-tech rumors, and I wanted to ask if there was some inside story about recalibrating oximeters more recently. Had there been some quiet racial justice work that already made corrections for its biased design?

“Nonwhite patients are already more likely to have identical signs classified as less urgent by physicians.” 

None that he’d heard of, Jose said. Oximeters predated much of the current DIY digital medical technology scene, developed across Europe, North America, and Japan  decades ago. Among makers today, the device is often considered simple to the point of being child’s play, in comparison to the cutting-edge spaces where most groups compete for prestigious breakthroughs and lucrative markets.

For devices shaped by “discriminatory design ,” as sociologist of science and technology Ruha Benjamin calls it, inequalities that are not intentional can still produce patterned exclusions and unequal rates of survival. The UCSF doctors who documented these disparities suggested “built-in user-optional adjustments” be designed into future models. But more than a decade later, I couldn’t find any examples on the market. The doctors also concluded that, at bare minimum, “warning labels should be provided to users, possibly with suggested correction factors.” I checked the box my pulse ox came in, but it only had fine print about inaccuracies linked to dark nail polish.

When I reached out to the team behind those breakthrough UCSF studies fifteen years ago, Professors Philip Bickler and John Feiner, they confirmed that they had not yet seen evidence of the change they hoped for around this issue. Bickler—now chief of neuroanesthesia, UCSF professor, and collaborating director of the Hypoxia Lab—said that as far as he was aware, “Manufacturers, as a group, have not responded at all adequately to this problem.” He notes that he views the current state of oximetry as a “great example of a bias in medical technology that disenfranchises a huge percentage of the earth’s population,” which especially worries him with “COVID-19 disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx populations.”

One pulse ox manufacturer, Nonin, sought to address race-based errors in their devices back in the 2000s. A page of their website  explains their work so far in comparison to their larger competitors. Several other companies in the original study also graciously replied to my questions, but none provided data showing the problem has been fixed. I combed through published studies they pointed to for context. The most widely quoted was a study from 2017 , which several companies presented as a bright spot showing that oximetry readings were not racially biased among thirty-five infants. (Other studies have shown that babies’ low melanin production  and the much thinner microstructure of newborn skin  leave them less susceptible to chromatic measures’ racial bias .) This is reassuring news for infant ICUs but it does not tell us the device errors have been fixed for others: the study itself notes standing disparities for adults.

One of the largest manufacturers said they had reassuring internal data for one specific line of models, but that response left me wondering about the many other models they sell to hospitals today. Companies should create public-facing record and global historical memory of any such corrective work that already happened, behind the scenes of our health systems’ privatized patchworks, to let us all know clearly where things stand. After all, these are not new questions: while COVID-19 gives new emphasis to the pulse ox, the device has long been crucial for treating respiratory conditions with their own histories of chronic racial biases  in diagnosis and care.

“Manufacturers, as a group, have not responded at all adequately to this problem.”

At present, there seems to be little consensus among doctors, too, about what to make of the available studies, including those cited in 2019 textbooks  on the need to correct for devices’ racial errors. One such study still being reprinted from 1990 recounts data showing the pulse ox target used for white patients on ventilators, 92, often resulted in hypoxia for Black patients ; for this patient group, a pulse ox reading of 95 corresponded to an arterial blood gas reading of 92. Yet several doctors I checked with said they never learned this, even back in 1990. Should health care providers be aware of these significant errors, or are textbooks teaching doctors outdated corrections that could also potentially do harm by leading to confusion or wrong adjustments? Companies should be transparent, assessing and clarifying any margins of racial bias on their websites, because getting this wrong in either direction could amplify racial care disparities.

Until then, the pulse ox could be read as a case study of systemic racism in miniature—a nexus where, as anthropologists note, black boxes  and public secrets  often go hand in hand. Since the original UCSF study ended with a call to action, it is disturbing to track its afterlife in the medical literature and within the contours of the present pandemic. Later studies citing the UCSF work often imply the bodies of nonwhite people are to blame for making the device malfunction. Most recently, one 2020 study  attributed race-based pulse ox errors to “co-morbidities upon which the device is used.” But the participants in that study had no underlying medical conditions; they were healthy young Black people.

In the 1990s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stopped allowing all-white male study samples. But mostly white study samples are still the norm; current guidelines  suggest including at least two people with “darkly pigmented” skin in a group otherwise 85 percent white. Yet this can still obscure errors due to racial bias, by allowing those few participants’ data points to be cast as outers clusters in white-centric safety standards. As scholar of institutional cultures Sara Ahmed  explains, this type of structure for “being included” still reproduces and recasts the norms of an unmarked white center, “against which others appear as points of deviation.”

Oneearly literature review  commenting on pulse ox racial bias, for example, highlighted several studies showing “significantly more signal quality problems” for Black patients. It also covered one study that did not find any bias—but the reviewers noted that the last study only included four Black patients in a group of twenty-one subjects, so “the population size was probably too small to show up minor differences in pulse oximetry performance.” That study, critiqued as inconclusive to assess bias because it had under-sampled people of color back in 1991, included the exact ratio of Black participants that the FDA guidelines still recommend including today.

“Mostly white study samples are still the norm.”

The UCSF studies provided an illuminating alternative model to correct such issues: by collecting data for equal-sized subgroups, they broke the numbers down to check whether it was equally safe for each group. This showed something the FDA study designs had worryingly missed: the most common oximeters in U.S. hospitals at the time did not meet FDA thresholds of safety for people with darker skin . When those data points get blended into mostly white statistics, the data may look fine. In this, the pulse ox is also a microcosm for the problems facing our democracy. Equal safety does not mean majority-fits-all.

These devices’ subtle inequities are also haunted by much deeper histories of racism in science and medicine. During the time when corporations rose from plantations , machines to measure breathing were designed to quantify—and justify—racial hierarchies. These orders were built on the idea that skin color itself was a comorbidity. Medical doctors of the era argued that violent regimes of Black enslavement and Indigenous dispossession were not unjust because they held important health benefits for the supposedly inherently dysfunctional biologies of nonwhite people. Certain devices to measure breathing  became part of larger machines to keep people in place, as historian Lundy Braun shows in her work on this medical legacy. This is part of larger patterns that scholars such as Dorothy Roberts and Anne Fausto-Sterling show get continuously encoded into medical school curricula  and scientific health research taken to be cutting-edge . Even today, in many clinics, the spirometer often has a “race button” as a legacy of this disturbing history.

Oximeters, by contrast, were first conceived to monitor and protect the breathing capacities of those with privileged mobility. It is no coincidence that novelist Esi Edugyan imagined freedom’s trajectory as a hot air balloon ride  over a sugar plantation: in fact, the idea for oximetry began at that height. Hot air balloon experiments I n the 1800s led to the development of blood oxygen saturation measures after scientist-adventurers became paralyzed while airborne, as made famous across Europe and the Americas by scientist Paul Bert ’s studies of the Zenith (though the pulse oximeter as known today wouldn’t be realized until decades later, by Takuo Aoyagi ). Now crucial to the practice of anesthesiology, the device was initially most popular among those able to reach high altitude: pilots, astronauts, mountaineers . Oximetry’s origins came from the sciences of safety for white flight, and pulse oximeters still protect people unevenly against a virus that causes difficulty breathing, in ways that some experts liken to falling oxygen at high altitude.

There is no reason to build these disparities into the next generation of technologies. Yet that is exactly what will happen if we don’t take active steps to remove existing racial biases. The pulse ox’s unequal metrics are one among countless converging factors that stack the deck against nonwhite people facing systemic inequities. Yet there will never be one single reset button for history, activists remind us; the hard work ahead is tackling each facet of such inequity as it comes into view. Rather than normalized inequalities, the pulse ox could become a case study in everyday repair work , as Toni Morrison calls it—small, material, mundane practices in the direction of justice. In the face of vastly unfinished racial reckoning and historical repair , it matters all the more to do the work of investing in the small chances for concrete action  right now in our hands.

“Pulse oximeters protect people unevenly against a virus that causes difficulty breathing.”

Engineers at MIT, for example, say adding adjustable LED lights to pulse oximeters could enable devices to set individualized baselines for each wearer, tailoring accuracy and fostering equitable safety. The technical capacity already exists. Funding from the National Institutes of Health could help fast-track long overdue corrections as part of a broad consortium coming together to fix this problem, to share progress so far and resources moving forward. With COVID-19 death tolls already over 160,000  in the United States alone and rising daily, the pulse ox is a vital tool for survival. It should not work least accurately  for those whose health is most in danger .

These patterned errors are disturbingly symbolic traces of whose safety our institutions and technologies were built for, leaving people of color to hope that less than equal will be good enough. Truly rethinking collective safety and justice means teaching the next generation—and trying to learn ourselves—how to build worlds that don’t normalize anymargin of error that would disproportionately obfuscate patients’ vital signs based on the color of their skin. Each moment until this work exists, oximeters remain another disturbing materialization of how white supremacy has been built into our systems and infrastructures of perception—even programmed into the very machines we rely on to quantify danger when someone can’t breathe.

Amy Moran-Thomas is Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT. Her research bridges the anthropology of health and environment (chronic disease, ecological and agricultural change, metabolism and nutrition) with ethnographic studies of science and technology (medical devices, chemical infrastructures, technology and kinship). She is author of Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic  (2019) and teaches on The Social Lives of Medical Objects  at MIT.

This article previously appeared in Boston Review .



‘This ruling is a particularly terrible blow because it comes at a time when people are taking to the streets en masse to protest state violence against Black people,’ said Nora Carroll, an attorney for Jalil Muntaqim, who has been imprisoned since 1971.

During a pandemic, does a state’s refusal to release medically vulnerable people from prison constitute deliberate indifference and a violation of the Eighth Amendment?

On Thursday, a New York appellate court decided that it did not. Its ruling reversed an earlier decision that would have allowed for the temporary release of 68-year-old Jalil Muntaqim, a former Black Panther who has been incarcerated since 1971. As of June 3, Sullivan Correctional Facility, where Muntaqim is incarcerated, had 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with one test still pending. Across the state’s 52 prisons, 511 people have tested positive and 16 have died.

On April 13, as COVID-19 was spreading throughout prisons in New York State and across the nation, Muntaqim had filed a writ of habeas corpus requesting relief in the form of immediate release. In his petition, he argued that his age, race, and serious health conditions heighten his vulnerability to the virus. During his nearly half-century behind bars, Muntaqim has developed high blood pressure, which led to a stroke, chronic bronchitis, sinusitis, and lung scarring. Furthermore, 81 percent of deaths in New York prisons since the start of COVID-19 have been people of color; 59 percent have been African American.

Two weeks later, on April 29, Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick ordered Muntaqim’s temporary release, ruling that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision was not in a position to address the health risks posed to him by his continued incarceration during the pandemic. The judge ordered Muntaqim’s temporary release, though he would continue serving his sentence under DOCCS supervision.

Attorney General Letitia James, representing DOCCS, appealed, blocking his release. James’s office argued that Muntaqim had failed to show that prison officials had been “deliberately indifferent to Muntaqim’s substantial risk of serious harm.” Her office also argued that habeas corpus—and a request for temporary release—was the wrong mechanism to address Muntaqim’s “claim of unconstitutional punishment based on prison conditions.”

Since then, Muntaqim has been hospitalized with COVID-19. Three days after his hospitalization on May 28, attorneys for both sides presented their arguments in a virtual appeals court.

Frank Brady, representing the attorney general, argued that Muntaqim never established that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his health. He also argued that the facts of the case had changed dramatically—that Muntaqim’s petition had hinged on his vulnerability to COVID-19 and that he has since contracted the virus. Furthermore, he repeatedly stated that a habeas petition for release was not the appropriate method to challenge prison conditions or unconstitutional medical care.

Nora Carroll, Muntaqim’s attorney, disagreed. A habeas request for release is “absolutely appropriate in these circumstances,” she argued, noting that conditions of confinement during this pandemic are unconstitutional, and the only appropriate remedy is release from these conditions. Noting that social distancing is impossible in a prison setting, she stated that Muntaqim is housed in a cellblock with 50 other individuals, some of whom had contracted the coronavirus. Although he had a cell to himself, and, according to Carroll, “tried to stay to himself and wear a mask every time he left his cell,” he still had to share telephones, showers, and meals with others. These measures had not prevented him from contracting the virus.

She added that researchers don’t know whether a person develops immunity after recovering from COVID-19. “If he does recover and is sent back, it seems very likely that he’ll be put in the exact same position. We don’t know if he can catch it again. It’s not all over because he got COVID,” she told The Appeal.

Carroll argued that the state has a responsibility to care for the people whom it incarcerates, and that it didn’t fulfill that responsibility when it failed to identify and release medically vulnerable people during the pandemic. “They’re creating a hotbed of viral spread,” she stated in court, noting that the 162 people released at that point represent less than half of one percent of its state prison population.

In his rebuttal, Brady presented another argument: By releasing Muntaqim, the court was setting itself up for granting parole. He noted that a court may choose to annul a decision by the parole board, but does not order a person’s release. Instead, the court orders that the parole board conduct another hearing.

“This is not parole,” Carroll told The Appeal. “This is merely a temporary release to alleviate an unconstitutional situation inside of the prison.” She noted that Judge Schick carefully worded his decision to specify a temporary release while under DOCCS supervision and that others, such as Trump aides Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, have been released from prison to serve their sentences under home confinement during the pandemic.

Law enforcement opposition to Muntaqim’s release is nothing new. In 1971, Muntaqim, then 19 years old and a member of the Black Panther Party, was arrested with two other Panthers for the fatal shootings of two police officers. In 1975, he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Now 68, Muntaqim is the last of the three in prison. In 2000, his co-defendant Albert Nuh Washington died in prison. In March 2018, his other co-defendant, Herman Bell, was granted parole. Despite opposition, including a court challenge from the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, Bell was released from prison in April.

Muntaqim became eligible for parole in 2002 and has appeared before the board 12 times. Each time, the PBA has deluged the parole board with letters opposing his parole. Each time, Muntaqim was denied parole. Jose Saldana, now the director of Release Aging People in Prison, has served time with Muntaqim and has witnessed Muntaqim act as a teacher and a mentor to others in prison. Muntaqim also established several prison programs, including a therapeutic group, an African American studies program, and classes in computer literacy, poetry, and sociology.

But, adds Saldana, the issue is less whether Muntaqim has transformed from a reckless 19-year-old than whether the parole board “has the integrity to free a man who should have been freed a long time ago and whether they will continue to allow the PBA to dictate and influence their decision-making process.” Muntaqim’s next parole hearing is in September.

DOCCS has also deemed Muntaqim ineligible for medical parole. He has been returned to Sullivan, where he is now in the infirmary with COVID-19.

In its decision, the Appellate Court found that Muntaqim failed to demonstrate prison officials’ deliberate indifference. Instead, the appellate decision noted that the prison superintendent had submitted an affidavit listing the steps taken to prevent COVID-19 spread, including stopping visits, halting new intakes and transfers between prisons, and requiring staff and incarcerated kitchen workers to wear masks. The court chose not to comment on whether a habeas petition was the appropriate remedy.

“We are devastated at the Third Department’s decision in Mr. Muntaqim’s case,” Carroll stated. “This ruling is a particularly terrible blow because it comes at a time when people are taking to the streets en masse to protest state violence against Black people. Yet this and other pleas to protect Black lives in New York State prisons are being turned away. All we can do now is hope Mr. Muntaqim recovers, as he is still in the hospital.”

Mumia: US Incapable of Protecting Its People

The nation’s best known political prisoner asks, “Who really believes that the US government can, or will, vaccinate over 300 million people – a government that can’t find the people it promised to give money to?”  Mumia Abu Jamal, like most of the nation’s two million incarcerated people, has been on lockdown since the Covid-19 crisis began. With 100,00 dead, Abu Jamal said the US “is marching headlong into the abyss.”

source: Mumia: US Incapable of Protecting Its People

Ralph Poynter: What’s Happening BlogTalkRadio Tuesday, May 19, 2020 – Call in 1 (347) 857-3293 @ 9-10pm ET

click on mp3 link below for last weeks program—-

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 – Call in 1 (347) 857-3293 @  9-10pm ET

RONA” Gonna Get Your Mama! image.pngThe Black Holocaust 

circa 2020- a Malcolm x  perspective-What would Malcolm do?

1  NEWS ANALYSIS—- An anatomy of oppression requires an anatomy of colonialism/imperialism i.e. An anatomy of the American Capitalist System: Ralph Poynter, Tom Siracuse, Joel Meyers, Gwen Goodwin, Paul Gilman, Henry Hagins 

     2.  Updates from the Political Prisoner Death Camps- Anne Lamb (NYC Jericho), Gil Obler (Free Mumia Coalition-NYC)

3.  Prof. Louie Liberation Poetry- In remembrance of Sister Lynne


From The Desk Of Black Panther Veteran-Zulu Nation King Sadiki “Bro.Shep” Olugbala
  New Black Panther Party Logo Black Panther PartyUNIVERSAL ZULU NATION
“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, 
that people  are dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. 
Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution.” 
Fallen Black Panther Field Marshal, Comrade George L. Jackson  (1941-1971)


TUESDAY: MAY 19, 2020

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Normally, our day would begin at 9am in Harlem with our Caravan for the annual Pilgrimage to the Gravesite of Malcolm X.
          Cemeteries and Funeral Parlors are facing limits that are being put on their service capacity because of the Pandemic. Ferncliff Cemetery, where Malcolm is buried, can only allow ten persons at a time for a service. For these reasons, for the first time since 1966, we are going to have cancel the ‘Public’ pilgrimage gravesite ceremony. There will be a ‘Private’ ceremony performed by the OAAU and the Sons of Africa for the benefit of the immediate family and honoring and upholding the tradition, and that can be seen virtually as it will shared on Facebook Live!
Sooo…At 11:00 am, YOU are invited to go to the Malcolm X Pilgrimage 2020-ONLINE Facebook Event Page and join some of his closest friends & family in the moment!…
Usually on the evening of May 19th, we join Ilyasah Shabazz and family at the Shabazz Center for the Annual Birthday Celebration.
Because of the Pandemic Restrictions, the Shabazz Center will instead host a 2 day series of virtual appreciations that they will include speakers, performers, liberation music.
It will begin with a Watch Party for a Special Malcolm X Film on Monday evening. The time and film to be announced…
At 7:00 PM Go the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee Facebook Page for a “Live Streamed” virtual Black Power 
Round Table Discussion Entitled… 
Malcolm X Speaks In The 21st Century: Beyond Covid-19 & Chickens Coming Home To Roost!’
This will be the first of a series of virtual MXCC events.
We are proud to announce that Ilyasah Shabazz will join us for this Round table and will give opening remarks with Prof. James Small of the OAAU.
Poet Activist Zayid Muhammad, MXCC’s founding press officer, will host a powerful inter-generational panel of activists and scholars that will include…
Viola Plummer of the December 12th Movement,
Prof. William Sales, co-convenor of the Malcolm X Speaks in the 90s Conferences and author of From Civil Rights to Black Liberation:Malcolm X and The OAAU,
Baba Zak KondoConspiracies:Unravelling The Assassination of Malcolm X,
Herb Boyd, co-author with Ilyasah Shabazz of The Diary of Malcolm X and co-editor of Malcolm X, Real, Not Invented, By Any Means Necessary,
Basir Mchawi, WBAI’s Education At The Crossroads,
Prof. Todd Burroughs, CoEditor of The Lie of Reinvention:Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X,
Prof. Kelly Harris‘Manning Marable:Humanizing Malcolm or Denigrating Legacies,’
Prof. Leonard Jeffries, founding chair emeritus of Africana Studies at City College New York and the International Executive Director of the OAAU…
For more information about this extraordinary effort, follow our Facebook Page @Malcolm X Commemoration Committee and the web pages of the
December 12th Movement and of the Shabazz Center …
Finally, Muslims all over the world are excited to know that on one of Islam’s most sacred nights Laitul Qadr, the Night of Power, or the night that the Prophet Muhammad
received his first Quranic revelation, falls on May 19th, the birthday of a great Muslim, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz-Malcolm X!
We can be reached at (973) 202-0745…
TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2020 @ 8 PM (Eastern) & @ 5 PM (Pacific)
Honoring Malcolm X & Elombe Brath and Black Solidarity with Palestine

TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2020

AT 11 AM – 2 PM PacificCoast Time

2PM –  5PM EastCoast Time
Join us on Malcolm X’s birthday for an AMED Open Classroom co-organized with the National Black Education Agenda. The May 19th Webinar will focus on oral histories of the statement by Black leaders in support of Palestinian freedom and justice in/for Palestine, preserved and available to us from Black4Palestine.
May 19th is not only the birthday of Malcolm X. It is also the date on which the great organizer and community leader and intellectual, Elombe Brath, passed away in 2014.
The statement was published almost 50 years ago on November 1, 1970, in the New York Times, the statement by the Committee of Black Americans for Truth about the Middle-East, C.O.B.A.T.A.M.E.
It is appropriate and fitting that we hold this webinar on the birthday of Haj Malik Al-Shabbaz. Malcom X who was a strong anti-Zionist and a committed advocate for justice in/for Palestine. Malcolm X’s late sister, Ella Collins, was one of the Black leaders who signed the statement (
We are indeed honored that Black leaders who made this Black support for Palestine a concrete reality will be sharing their wisdom and oral history experience.
Confirmed participants include:
Professor Sam Anderson, National Black Education Agenda, who co-edited the statement and was one of the earlier unsung heroes who was penalized by losing his job at Sarah Lawrence College as a result (insert McGill Women and war stories video)
Frances M. Beal, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Third World Women’s Alliance
Phil Hutchings, Chairman of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when SNCC adopted its statement on Palestine and lost a lot of its funding.
Professor Bill Strickland (emeritus) Afro American Studies, U-Mass, Amherst. Professor Strickland initiated and drafted the statement.
Ambassador Robert F. Van Lierop, Esq, Secretary Treasurer of C.O.B.A.T.A.M.E
* Askia Mohammad Toure, Black Arts Movement, editorial Board member, Black America
Future AMED Open classroom will be similarly co-sponsored and co-organized with community groups, including those in the academy and will address relevant issues.

Common, Angela Davis, Pete Rock, Ilyasah Shabazz to honor

Malcolm X Day with a livestream event on Tuesday May 19, 2020

The day-long event marks the icon’s 95th birthday.

Cortney Wills


May 15, 2020

Ilyasah Shabazz is teaming up with Common, DJ Pete Rock and Angela Davis to celebrate her father’s 95th birthday and it’s exactly what we need right now. 
The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center have announced a special live stream event honoring the iconic leader’s impact and legacy. 
The program will be broadcast across multiple platforms – including the Shabazz Center’s website, Facebook, and Instagram pages on May 19th.
The day-long broadcast marks what would have been the iconic freedom fighter’s 95th birthday and will be part of the annual Malcolm X Day celebration. 
Tuesday’s event will feature a series of conversations with local and national activists, a town hall-style discussion with elected officials, and a variety of arts and cultural performances. 
Confirmed participants include professor, author and activist Ilyasah, who is the daughter of Malcolm X; political activist, scholar and author Angela Davis; 
Emmy, Grammy and Oscar-Winning artist Common, and more. Hip-hop legend DJ Pete Rock will also lead a special music tribute live on Instagram at 5:00 p.m. EST. 
Additional talent is expected to be announced in the coming days.
“As the global community strives to endure this time of crisis, the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center remains committed to advancing our rich legacy of human rights and social change,” Ilyasah said in a statement.
“We are excited to join together with so many great artists, activists and community leaders to celebrate my father’s 95th birthday, honor his lasting impact, and create a safe space that inspires and uplifts scholarship, joy and resilience in both our children and larger communities,” she concluded.
The Malcolm X-Dr. Betty Shabazz Center’s full Malcolm X Day program schedule & event updates can be found HERE.
 Ralph Poynter:  What’s Happening   Blog Talk Radio 
Tuesday, May 19, 2020 – Call in 1 (347) 857-3293 @  9-10pm ET
RONA” Gonna Get Your Mama! image.pngThe Black Holocaust 
circa 2020- a Malcolm x  perspective-What would Malcolm do?

He was one of New York’s most famous prisoners. Now he’s one of its oldest—and most vulnerable.

Chesa Boudin as a boy with his dad, David GilbertCourtesy of Chesa Boudin

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones’ newsletters.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was at home cooking on Saturday afternoon when his dad, David Gilbert, called from a prison in upstate New York. Boudin was glad to hear his father’s voice. But he was worried about his old man: Someone in the cell next to him had tested positive for the coronavirus.

At 75, Gilbert is one of the oldest prisoners in the state. Even calling his son is risky for him now, since hundreds of guys at Shawangunk Correctional Facility share the same phones to call home. Before dialing his son, Gilbert wrapped the receiver with an undershirt to avoid touching it to his face. He would hand-wash the shirt after returning to his cell.

As the coronavirus sweeps through the country’s prisons and jails, Gilbert is one of the tens of thousands of elderly inmates at high risk for complications. In New York, about 2,600 prisoners were at least 60 years old in 2018. A greater number have other serious underlying conditions. Now Gilbert is part of a group of vulnerable inmates petitioning a court to protect them from the deadly virus by releasing them early.

In 1981, when Boudin was just 14 months old, his mother, Kathy Boudin, and Gilbert—both members of the leftist Weather Underground group—were arrested for serving as getaway drivers during the notorious Brinks heist, which resulted in the deaths of a company guard and two police officers. Boudin was raised in Chicago by his parents’ professor friends, fellow Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. He got to know his own mother and father through phone calls. They liked to tell him fictional adventure stories—Gilbert calling to share a chapter one day, and Kathy Boudin following up later with another. She was paroled in 2003, the year Boudin became a Rhodes Scholar. Gilbert received a longer sentence and has many years left in prison. Boudin visited him last November, on the same day he learned he had been elected as San Francisco’s DA.

Since then, the coronavirus has sickened at least 20 incarcerated people at Shawangunk, and 414 in other New York state prisons. Fifteen inmates have died. Nationally, the percentage of people in state prisons who are 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016, to 150,000 people, according to a recent Marshall Project analysis, which noted that for the first time ever, these older adults compose a greater percentage of the prison population than people between the ages of 18 and 24.

Gilbert is trying to be careful: He’s skipping some meals to avoid the crowded mess hall, and forgoing breaks outside and exercise in the yard. But his cell has a wall of bars that open onto a pathway, so he’s regularly within six feet of other people. “We’re really worried about him,” says Boudin, who notes that his dad has underlying medical problems, including hypothyroid disorder and damage to his digestive system, that have been exacerbated by the decades he’s spent in prison.

And the prison, Boudin argues, cannot keep his father safe. Social distancing is virtually impossible behind bars, and protective equipment and tests are in short supply. Because of this, many states have started releasing some people early, especially those who committed nonviolent crimes, are almost done with their sentences, and have medical conditions that put them at greater risk of complications.

But New York, an epicenter of the virus, has been relatively slow to let them go. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resisted using his clemency powers to release people, leaving stacks of applications—including Gilbert’s—pending. The state has only freed 162 inmates, less than half of 1 percent of its prison population, in response to the pandemic. All of them were 55 and older and convicted of nonviolent crimes, with less than 90 days remaining on their sentence. By comparison, California, where Boudin is based, has let 3,500 prisoners go home early in response to the pandemic, or nearly 3 percent of its total prison population.

Gilbert and 21 other people in Ulster County prisons filed a habeas corpus petition for release on Monday with help from the Legal Aid Society of New York. The inmates argue their continued imprisonment during the pandemic, in facilities where they are at substantially higher risk of infection, violates the Eighth Amendment. “By design and operation, New York state prisons make it impossible for [them] to engage in the necessary hygiene, cleaning, and social distancing measures that experts implore all of us to take to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” their petition states. Infrequent testing in New York prisons means the infection rate is likely much higher than has been reported. “In the absence of executive action by Governor Cuomo, courts must act to protect our clients’ constitutional rights to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment,” says Lauren Jones, their attorney.

Some of the prisoners who filed the petition are elderly and have served decades in prison; others have weakened immune systems from medication, cancer, or HIV, or struggle to breathe because of asthma, emphysema, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. One of the petitioners, Julio Rivera, reports that when he goes to his prison’s medical clinic to get insulin for his diabetes, he often encounters 20 or 30 other people there, and must stand closer than six feet next to some of them in line.

Another petitioner, Robert Drach, says that the medical unit where he receives chemotherapy also houses men who tested positive for COVID-19. Their family members worry they may not make it out of prison alive. “They deserve to get a second chance,” says Geannie Chalk, whose brother Richard Lee Chalk, 61, another petitioner, has atrial fibrillation, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and sleep apnea. “There are nights my wife and I cannot even close our eyes” to sleep, says Roy Williams Sr., whose son Roy, 47, takes an immunosuppressive drug three times a day to treat his Crohn’s disease at Eastern prison, where 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

 Richard Lee Chalk is now incarcerated at Shawangunk prison.
Courtesy of Legal Aid Society

Gilbert and the other men in the petition argue they are not a public safety risk, and that continuing to lock them up is unnecessary during the pandemic. New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In the nearly 40 years that Gilbert has spent in prison, he has never once received a disciplinary infraction, according to his attorneys. And during that time, he has become a mentor to younger incarcerated men. Jerome Wright, a civil rights activist, first met Gilbert at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in the 1980s. The two men worked together to develop peer education classes in prison about the AIDS epidemic. “I was much younger than him, in my 20s, and he was instrumental in quelling a lot of fear that the younger guys had about the prevalence of HIV infection, how you got it, and the conspiracy theories,” Wright recalls. “He would talk to us about what we could do to protect ourselves and our family. Because of his calm, quiet way of talking and the celebrity he had in the fight for justice for Black and brown people, we would listen to him. He was one of the mentors that helped me develop as a young man.”

Boudin says his father has also influenced how he approaches his job as district attorney. When Boudin campaigned last year for office, after years working as a public defender, he made national headlines by pledging to request prison sentences only as a last resort—an unusual stance for a prosecutor. During the pandemic, he has tried to find alternatives to jail for people who are older or medically vulnerable. And he helped reduce San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since January. Crime has dropped too, and the infection rate in the city’s jails has remained relatively low, even with widespread testing: Three inmates have tested positive so far (all three during intake). In jails in Chicago and New York City, by comparison, hundreds have been sickened by the virus. Boudin hopes to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact statewide policy changes that could help release more elderly and medically vulnerable people from prisons during the pandemic.

 Roy Williams Jr., top right, at age 13
Courtesy of Legal Aid Society

Boudin tends to condemn his parents’ crime. “There are three families that don’t have a father anymore because of the crime that my parents participated in,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross recently. (Gilbert was not armed during the Brinks heist and did not attack anyone, but received a 75-year-to-life sentence under New York’s felony murder law.) As a district attorney, Boudin also emphasizes that public safety is his top goal. But his father and the other aging, sick prisoners in Ulster County have long since rehabilitated, he says, and keeping them in prison needlessly puts them at risk of death without any benefit to the broader community. “They are not a public safety risk,” he says. “They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”

Research shows that, overwhelmingly, people usually age out of crime: One study of New York prisoners who were 65 or older found that only 4 percent were convicted of another crime after their release, compared to 16 percent of men younger than 50. Studies in other states have shown even lower recidivism rates for the elderly.

His dad continues to call regularly with updates. It’s a strange feeling, fielding the calls from New York during breaks from his own work to get people out of San Francisco’s jails. “I grew up feeling largely powerless to help my father,” Boudin tells me. “And now I’m district attorney, and I have a really concrete power and responsibility.” He pauses: “It’s an intense contrast, to have the responsibility and power to make these decisions with regard to so many people who are accused of crimes in San Francisco—and to be so powerless when it comes to my father.”


Canada on trial: War on Wet’suwet’en nation

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) continues building the Coastal GasLink pipeline despite the COVID-19 crisis in Canada. It is projected to run 420 miles through Wet’suwet’en First Nation territory—territory that has never been ceded to Canada—from Dawson Creek in northeast British Columbia to Kitimat on the West Coast.

Instead of complying with health requirements, the company is using the global pandemic to divert attention from their actions.


The BC government has allowed construction to continue during the pandemic, at great risk to workers and others, while outlawing protests against the pipeline and other public assemblies. The violent behavior of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and its declaration of “lethal overwatch” of the protests is cause for alarm by anyone who has concerns about Canadian democracy.

TC Energy is in violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). But the duplicitous Michaelle Jean, former Governor General of Canada, signed UNDRIP only as non-binding, while she refused to ratify it.


There are as well questions of authority within the Wet’suwet’en between the elected band councils and the hereditary chiefs. Some elected band councils, established as administrative bodies by the Indian Act of 1876, have signed agreements with TC Energy, while hereditary chiefs, who under tribal law have authority over the land, have not been consulted. That authority is recognized by Canada’s Constitution and was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1997, though the decision was not finalized and was sent back to a lower court.

Most tribal members live in deep poverty, and TC Energy is using that as leverage to take rights away from the Wet’suwet’en and other indigenous groups (as an establishment of legal precedent). These are agreements made under duress—people are being asked to negotiate under conditions that are much like having a gun to their heads. It is no dialogue between equals.

Every sort of question is involved: what is property and ownership; what is self-determination; and what does this mean for the entire world?


The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the danger that continued construction brings of increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. There have been massive protests across Canada and, most notably, work stoppages and the blocking of rail service between Toronto and Montréal by indigenous groups and their supporters.

Even the pandemic will not stop this. It has brought together people from all areas of Canada: Indigenous, workers, environmentalists—English and French speakers—feminists, gender activists, and more, and they are in it for the long haul. It has brought Indigenous issues to the world stage.

Now the New Democratic Party (NPD), once the party of labor and of oppressed minorities, has lost much of its reason to exist. BC Premier John Horgan and others in the NDP-dominated provincial government have lost credibility, and seem unaware of the harm that they have done. Canada is losing its reputation as an enlightened social democracy, especially with its $15 billion bailout of the energy industry, as it cuts the social safety net to a level that endangers millions.


The disregard for human rights is obvious. It calls into question the fetish of “development” and reveals its anti-social nature.

However grim the situation may appear, the movement for human emancipation is growing in Canada in the protests and in the movements in thought. In working together with the deepest collective spirit of respect for each other, we are seeing a glimpse of a new society to come. In these difficult times, we are witnessing an awakening of the human spirit and of a greater idea of freedom and respect.

—D. Chêneville & Ti-Ouistit

Statement in Support of Pennsylvania Politikal Prisoners: Building Upon the Legacies of Political Prisoners to Bring Them Home

by Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project

As poor communities and communities of color continue to wade through a gauntlet of crises, it is encouraging to see movements and organizations building and seeking solidarity to wage a concerted rescue. It is for this reason that we must now, at this moment in our people’s historical arch of resistance and struggle, extend a last ditch lifeline to our movement’s political prisoners who are on their last legs and in many cases literally their last breath; and who as seniors constitute the most vulnerable among us. Our movement’s political prisoners, who, despite surviving countless hostile encounters with the state’s security forces, are on the verge of succumbing to old age and infirmities behind the walls and gun towers of the empire’s Prison Industrial Complex.

It is also encouraging to see one of the main issues of these communities — mass incarceration — come front and center in public consciousness. To see it be recognized as the continuation of slavery, and more folks be proud to bear the mantle of abolitionist, is heartening. We are witnessing a rising tidal wave of consciousness that has the potential of lifting society to a higher level of humanity. The need to reform or outright abolish the current legal system has never been as mainstream as it is today. Just as the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, the civil rights movement, and the Black Liberation/Black Power movement, were all thrusts to humanize this society, today’s criminal legal reform and prison abolition movements also have the potential to make this society more humane. This “mainstreaming” of criminal justice reform is the result of the tireless efforts of activists, families, and advocates not abandoning their loved ones and communities to the beast of mass incarceration.

However, today’s prison abolitionist and prison reform movement will fall woefully short of fully humanizing American society if it allows the issue of political prisoners to be perceived as a radioactive idea. Because of this reactionary and unfortunate perception among certain sectors of the reform movement, some of these political prisoners themselves have opted to be excluded from any reform or abolition campaign. They perceive themselves as radioactive to the fight. This is a sad resignation on the part of our greatest living champions of justice. This thinking has as much to do with the graciousness and self-sacrifice of our warriors behind bars as it does to the way the movement itself has allowed the idea of radioactivity, futility, and “lost cause,” to influence and infect its direction and sense of justice.

In Pennsylvania, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Fred Muhammad Burton, Joseph JoJo Bowen and Mumia Abu-Jamalhave languished in prisons for decades. They are now seniors and in poor health. Nationally, Ruchell Cinque Magee, Ramaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, Sundiata Acoli, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Jalil Muntaquin, Ed Poindexter, Kamau Sadiki, Kojo Bomani Sababu, Leonard Peltier, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, Veronza Bowers, and Rev. Joy Powellare among the longest interned human political prisoners in the world. These are our Nelson Mandelas. They are all not just our elders, but now our elderly. They resist the passage of time, and the effects of long term solitary confinement, unconscionable abuses, and prison machinations, that have led to terminal illness in many of them. Not just every day that they make it through, but every breath that they take, is an act of defiance and preservation of dignity.

We believe that not seeing the movement to free political prisoners as part of the movement for criminal legal reform is partly the cause of the increased distancing and alienation of political prisoners from the criminal legal reform movement. This all has helped to increase the isolation of the movement to free political prisoners and have led to a costly loss of steam in that movement. There are also many within the mainstream criminal justice reform movement who don’t want it to be associated with the radical politics that define political prisoners. This distancing and alienation of political prisoners from the criminal legal reform and abolitionist movements, which they helped birth and gave thrust and vision to, is unacceptable.

As part of the movement for prison abolition and criminal justice reform the Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project rejects the idea, whether strategic or tactical, that political prisoners are radioactive to the fight for social and criminal justice. We are committed to a strong thrust to revive the campaign to free US political prisoners. However, we believe that this thrust and campaign must also incorporate a critical collective examination of the previous struggles of the Political Prisoner movement. This would fortify an analysis of contemporary conditions for the purpose of projecting a new vision for the political prisoner movement that is integral to the abolitionist and reform movement at large. This collective examination revolves around a recommitment to Restorative and Transformative Justice centered on healing, accountability, compassion and restoration. It would also recognize the harm suffered and the enduring harm that retribution causes to the families of political prisoners, the injured family’s parties, and our communities. This cycle must be broken.

The Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project are committed to supporting and helping to lead the fight for the release of Pennsylvania’s political prisoners through whatever legal means available and necessary, be it compassionate release, clemency, or pardons. We encourage prison abolitionists and prison reform movements to prioritize the cases of political prisoners. We will devote resources to the rebuilding of a Jericho Pennsylvania Chapter. Our support for Political Prisoners will not be conditioned upon guilt or innocence, nor will we prioritize or lift claims of innocence.

We believe that prioritizing the innocence of our political prisoners runs the risk of continually miring our efforts to get them released in the never ending retrying and relitigation of their cases. Our position is that our political prisoners have served enough time and it is time to bring them home. They have served over 40 years and are in their 70’s and 80’s. Many are among the longest held political prisoners in the world. Statistically, they are in the age group that poses no threat to the community or society at large. In fact, their continued incarceration serves absolutely no more purpose other than endless retribution. We believe that with over 40 years served we can firmly say retribution has run its course.

We call on the prison abolition and criminal justice reform movements, and supporters of Political Prisoners, to join with us in committing to the following points:

1.) Organize and support efforts for compassionate release of Political Prisoners through executive clemency and/or other means available.

2.) Provide letters supporting clemency for political prisoners from criminal justice reform groups and restorative justice advocacy groups.

3.) Obtain letters supporting compassionate release from state representatives and politicians representing our communities.

4.) Advocate for a reconciliation and restorative justice process between Political Prisoners and the victims in the cases for which they were convicted.

5.) Creation of space for political prisoners in the criminal legal reform campaigns, such as the campaigns to end life without parole/death by incarceration, to release aging prisoners, to include violent cases in the equation of criminal justice reform, and to release those human beings who are most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. This would include providing space for political prisoner cases to be represented on every movement organization’s agenda, including rallies and other actions.

6.) Establishment of a Pennsylvania chapter of Jericho to help consolidate and assist all campaigns to free the state’s political prisoners. 


The Black Plague

The Black Plague

The Black Plague

The rapidity with which the pandemic has consumed black communities provides an unvarnished look into the dynamics of race and class that existed long before it emerged

“Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans.”

The old African-American aphorism “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia” has a new, morbid twist: when white America catches the novel coronavirus, black Americans die.

Thousands of white Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality. According to a Reuters report, African-Americans are more likely to die of covid-19 than any other group in the U.S. It is still early in the course of the pandemic, and the demographic data is incomplete, but the partial view is enough to prompt a sober reflection on this bitter harvest of American racism.

Louisiana, with more than twenty-one thousand reported infections, has the largest number of coronavirus cases outside of the Northeast and the Midwest. When the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, announced recently that it would begin to provide data about the racial and ethnic breakdowns of those who have died, he included the grim acknowledgement that African-Americans, thirty-three per cent of Louisiana’s population, comprise seventy per cent of the dead.

The small city of Albany, Georgia, two hundred miles south of Atlanta, was the site of a heroic civil-rights standoff between the city’s black residents and its white police chief in the early nineteen-sixties. Today, more than twelve hundred people in the county have confirmed covid-19 cases, and at least seventy-eight people have died. According to earlier reports, eighty-one per cent of the dead are African-American.

“African-Americans are more likely to die of covid-19 than any other group in the U.S.”

In Michigan, African-Americans make up fourteen per cent of the state’s population, but, currently, they account for thirty-three per cent of its reported infections and forty per cent of its deaths. Twenty-six per cent of the state’s infections and twenty-five per cent of deaths are in Detroit, a city that is seventy-nine per cent African-American. covid-19 is also ravaging the city’s suburbs that have large black populations.

The virus has shaken African-Americans in Chicago, who account for fifty-two per cent of the city’s confirmed cases and a startling seventy-two per cent of deaths—far outpacing their proportion of the city’s population.

As many have already noted, this macabre roll call reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to have preëxisting health conditions that make the coronavirus particularly deadly. This is certainly true. These conditions—diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and obesity—are critical factors, and they point to the persistence of racial discrimination, which has long heightened black vulnerability to premature death, as the scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore has said for years. Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans. Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race. These factors explain why African-Americans are sixty per cent more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans, and why black women are sixty per cent more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. Such health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination.

“African-Americans are more likely to have preëxisting health conditions.”

It is easy to simply point to the prevalence of these health conditions among African-Americans as the most important explanation for their rising death rates. But it is also important to acknowledge that black vulnerability is especially heightened by the continued ineptitude of the federal government in response to the coronavirus. The mounting carnage in Trump’s America did not have to happen to the extent that it has.  Covid-19 testing remains maddeningly inconsistent and unavailable, with access breaking down along the predictable lines. In Philadelphia, a scientist at Drexel University found that, in Zip Codes with a “lower proportion of minorities and higher incomes,” a higher number of tests were administered. In Zip Codes with a higher number of unemployed and uninsured residents, there were fewer tests. Taken together, testing in higher-income neighborhoods is six times greater than it is in poorer neighborhoods.

Inconsistent testing, in combination with steadfast denials from the White House about the threat of the virus, exacerbated the appalling lack of preparation for this catastrophe. With more early coördination, hospitals might have procured the necessary equipment and staffed up properly, potentially avoiding the onslaught that has occurred. The consequences are devastating. In the Detroit area, where the disease is surging, about fifteen hundred hospital workers, including five hundred nurses at Beaumont Health, Michigan’s largest hospital system, are off of the job with symptoms of covid-19. Early in the crisis, at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, nurses were reduced to wearing garbage bags for their protection. Across the country, health-care providers are being asked to ration face masks and shields, dramatically raising the potential of their own infection, and thereby increasing the strain on the already overextended hospitals.

“Testing in higher-income neighborhoods is six times greater than it is in poorer neighborhoods.”

The early wave of disproportionate black deaths was hastened by Trumpian malfeasance, but the deaths to come are the predictable outcome of decades of disinvestment and institutional neglect. In mid-March, Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board in Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, lamented the covid-19 crisis and proclaimed that “we are all in this together,” but, weeks later, she closed the emergency room of the public Provident Hospital in the predominantly black South Side. Preckwinkle claimed that the closure would last for a month and was a response to a single health-care worker becoming infected with the virus. Leave aside the fact that nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers have been testing positive for covid-19 across the country, and their facilities have not been shuttered. It is a decision that simply could not have been made, in the midst of a historic pandemic, in any of the city’s wealthy, white neighborhoods on the North Side.

Meanwhile, in Cook County Jail, three hundred and twenty-three inmates and a hundred and ninety-six correctional officers have tested positive for covid-19. Not only have officials not closed the county jail as a result but they also have yet to release a significant number of jailed people, even though the facility has the highest density of covid-19 cases in Chicago. These are the kinds of decisions that explain why there is a thirty-year difference in life expectancy—in the same city—between the black neighborhood of Englewood and the white neighborhood of Streeterville. They are also just the latest examples of the ways that racism is the ultimate result of the decisions that government officials make, regardless of their intentions. Preckwinkle is African-American, and the chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Party, but her decisions regarding Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail will still deeply wound African-Americans across Chicago.

“There is a thirty-year difference in life expectancy between the black neighborhood of Englewood and the white neighborhood of Streeterville.”

The rapidity with which the pandemic has consumed black communities is shocking, but it also provides an unvarnished look into the dynamics of race and class that existed long before it emerged. The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility. In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy.

Since emancipation, racism has underwritten black economic hardship. That hardship is expressed through the concentration of African-Americans in low-wage jobs—many of which are now ironically designated “essential.” According to a report in the Times, Annie Grant, a fifty-five-year-old black woman who worked at the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Camilla, Georgia, said that she was suffering from fevers and chills, and she told her children that she was ordered to return to work despite exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Earlier this month, she died from covid-19. Two more workers at the plant have died, and others have complained about the lack of protective equipment and the difficulty of social distancing there, but Tyson has kept it open. (A spokesperson for Tyson Foods has said that the company has instituted safeguards for employees, including “an adequate supply of protective face coverings for production workers.”) When Vice-President Mike Pence spoke about the role of low-wage, essential work amid a widening outbreak in food-processing plants, he said, “You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America, and we need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.”

“Race and class cannot be separated from each other.”

The intersecting threats of hunger, eviction, and unemployment drive poor and working-class African-Americans toward the possibility of infection. Fewer than twenty per cent of African-Americans have jobs that allow them to work at home. Black workers are concentrated in public-facing jobs, working in mass transit, home health care, retail, and service, where social distancing is virtually impossible. And then there is the concentration of African-Americans in institutions where social distancing is impossible, including prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. African-Americans make up the majority of the incarcerated and the homeless. Forty-six per cent of African-Americans perceive covid-19 as a “major threat” to their health, and yet race and class combine to put black people in danger. These numbers are the crisis wrapped inside of the pandemic.

Poverty, in turn, reinforces ideological assumptions about race. When working-class black neighborhoods have high rates of substandard housing and poor maintenance, and black communities suffer from poor diets and widespread obesity, these characteristics are conflated with race. Racializing poverty helps to distract from the systemic factors at the foundation of both racial and economic inequality. Instead, there is an overabundance of attention placed on the diagnosis and repair of supposedly damaged African-Americans. On April 10th, Trump’s Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, who is black, instructed African-American and Latino communities to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs during the pandemic. In a familiar paternalistic ode, Adams advised, “We need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your big mama. Do it for your pop-pop.” He added, “We need you to step up.”

These remarks were a reminder of how the focus on the comorbidities accompanying covid-19, such as diabetes and hypertension, can be easily transformed into discussions about the dietary and exercise habits of the black working class. But that is an irresponsibly one-sided discussion, one that ignores the comorbidities of food deserts, the diminishing returns of food stamps, and the depression and alienation that blanket poor and working-class black neighborhoods. It is not the absence of willpower that is fuelling the pandemic’s deadly effects in black communities. And the disproportionate impact of the virus is not caused by a language barrier requiring that African-Americans be spoken to with “targeted language,” as Adams later explained.

“Fewer than twenty per cent of African-Americans have jobs that allow them to work at home.”

Adams’s remarks were also a reminder that, even when poverty is not the issue, racism or racially inflected assumptions about African-Americans influence the ways that they are cared for within the health-care industry. Not only are black women three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women are but college-educated black women’s mortality rates in childbirth are higher than those of white women with just a high-school degree. The stereotypes of African-Americans as fat and lazy, carefree and reckless, impetuous, irresponsible, and ultimately undeserving, are absorbed into the consciousness of the general public, health-care providers among them. These stereotypes are rooted in misperceptions of poor and working-class black life, but, because race is widely seen as biologically based in our society, including by doctors, they are assumed to be characteristics inherited by all black people. In a series of studies published in 2017, researchers found “an implicit preference for white patients, especially among white physicians.” Another study found that doctors believed that white patients were more medically coöperative than African-American patients. A 2016 study of medical students and residents found that almost half of them believe that there are biological differences between black bodies and white bodies—including the false notion that the nerve endings of black people are less sensitive than those of whites. These findings may give some insight into a more recent study that showed that black patients were forty per cent less likely to receive medication to ease acute pain.

Discrimination against African-American patients is so embedded in health-care practices that a national study found that, even when hospitals and insurers relied on an algorithm to manage care, African-American patients received on average eighteen hundred dollars less of care per year than white patients with the same chronic health conditions. African-Americans had to be sicker than whites before they were referred for more specialized help. It’s not just poverty that leads to misdiagnoses and inconsistent care; it is also deeply embedded assumptions that black bodies are damaged and, thus, disposable.

“African-Americans had to be sicker than whites before they were referred for more specialized help.”

It’s not just Trump appointees who make condescending or ignorant statements. Even a liberal stalwart like Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is not immune to fixating on perceptions of black complicity in poor health outcomes. In response to the reporting on black deaths from the coronavirus, Lightfoot said, “Now, we’re not going to be able to erase decades of health disparities in a few days or a week, but we have to impress upon people in these communities that there are things they can do—there are tools at their disposal that they can use to help themselves, but we have to call this out as it is and make sure we’ve got a very robust, multitiered response now and going forward, and we will.”

What are the “tools” at the disposal of black communities in Chicago that would allow them to “help themselves” out of the covid-19 crisis? Lightfoot did not elaborate, but this sounds like loaded language that shifts the blame for black health disparities onto the segregated black neighborhoods of Chicago. Lightfoot’s comments underestimate the difficulty of achieving good health and wellness while also combatting the forces of underemployment, evictions, and police violence—all of which define much of working-class black life in Chicago. The over-all unemployment rate for young black men and women in Chicago is thirty-seven per cent, compared with six per cent for their white peers. It is certainly easier to promote these mysterious “tools” than it is to confront the decades-long crisis of disinvestment and unemployment in the city, but that is actually what is necessary to change these circumstances.

There is an additional consequence of letting the coronavirus crisis lapse into a narrow focus on the personal choices of African-Americans. The assumption that if African-Americans just change their personal behavior then they can join the ranks of the fit and healthy ignores the systemic issues that have created a general crisis of health and wellness and access to medical care in the United States. The problem that black people face is not just one of exclusion from adequate health care, with inclusion as the cure. Simply calling for “equal access” can reinforce the perception that the problem is one of exclusion alone, when the deeper problem is U.S. society itself.

“The over-all unemployment rate for young black men and women in Chicago is thirty-seven per cent.”

When James Baldwin, in his searing 1963 book The Fire Next Time, posed the question of whether African-Americans should integrate into the “burning house” of the United States, he argued that the question demanded a deeper look into U.S. society. Baldwin wrote, “White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”

Racism has meant that most African-Americans suffer to greater degrees than most white Americans. But, in the past several years, there have been multiple reports showing that the life expectancy for the average white person has gone in reverse. This does not normally happen in the developed world. But, in this country, this phenomenon is driven by alcoholism, opioid abuse, and suicide. Far from white privilege, this is white pathos.

Unequal access to health care may be important in the immediate context of the pandemic, but this alone doesn’t tell us much about the general crisis with for-profit health care in the United States. It also doesn’t tell us much about the larger social crises in the U.S. that underwrite the particular health-care problems of African-Americans and white Americans. A glimpse into those larger crises was provided by the United Nations in 2017, when its investigators interviewed people in several cities about poverty in the United States. The report concluded that “the United States already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality, and it is now moving full steam ahead to make itself even more unequal. . . . High child and youth poverty rates perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty very effectively, and ensure that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.” The U.S. has the highest youth and infant mortality rates among wealthy countries. U.S. citizens live “shorter and sicker” lives than those of other prosperous democratic nations.

“The American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.”

When public officials lament the way that covid-19 is engulfing black communities, the larger question is, what are they prepared to do about it? The immediate answer should be the rapid expansion of Medicaid and Medicare. But access to health care is only one small piece of the dynamic that compromises the health of African-Americans. Good health-care practice must also include relief from the threat and stress of evictions. Black women constitute about forty-four per cent of those who are evicted from their homes in urban areas; as a result, they disproportionately experience homelessness and depression and, in extreme cases, commit suicide. Good health care means higher-paying jobs that allow black women and their families to worry less about monthly bills and the costs of child care and education. Black women in Louisiana, the state where African-Americans face the highest mortality rates from covid-19, make forty-seven cents to every dollar made by white men.

We periodically endure national crises that force us to look at the poverty and inequality that exist all around us. We hear those in power, including elected officials, breathlessly discuss the shameful conditions that produce these outcomes, but they pledge little in terms of specific policies and concrete actions to reverse them. Trump says that the higher rates of black death are “a tremendous challenge. . . . We want to find the reason to it.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who dutifully accompanies Trump to his press briefings, provided an explanation that included existing health problems, but, Fauci concluded, “There is nothing we can do about it right now except to give them the best possible care and to avoid complications.”

Expressions of concern, well wishes, and promises of “a very robust multitiered response” sound good at press conferences. But many elected officials who tell us that they mean well are so trapped by a prevailing hostility to spending in order to rebuild the public sector that they are unable to reach actual solutions. In the midst of this surging pandemic, the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, a Democrat, recently announced a round of budget cuts and reduced services, saying, “It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be pleasant . . . but, at the end of it, we need a balanced budget.” Philadelphia is the poorest of the large American cities where African-Americans are suffering the most from the covid-19 outbreak. And, at just the moment when many are highlighting the ways that inequality and our poor civic infrastructure are failing the public—especially the black public—the mayor has announced “unpleasant” budget cuts.

“Good health care means higher-paying jobs that allow black women and their families to worry less about monthly bills.”

It’s not just Philadelphia. For decades, across the country, cities large and small have been committed to a development model that prioritizes attracting private corporations with promises of tax relief while neglecting to invest heavily in public institutions. Instead, public hospitals have been closed, public housing has been detonated or left in disrepair, public schools have been starved of investment, and public health clinics have been shuttered. Even as the horrifying consequences of these political choices during the covid-19 epidemic appear in news stories across the country, elected officials have no meaningful plans to change course.

Knowledge alone about these health disparities and the racism in which they are rooted will not be enough to inspire action by elected officials or government entities. When Hurricane Katrina exposed the brutal racism of the Gulf Coast, it did not lead to a new regime of robust investments in the public sector or an infusion of high-paying jobs to pull African-Americans out of poverty. Instead, corporate vultures and their public enablers forced the closure of nearly all of the city’s public schools, which were “auctioned off” to charters. The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to tear down public housing undamaged by the hurricane. And tens of thousands of black New Orleanians were given one-way tickets out of the city, and then disparagingly referred to as “refugees” in their own country. Unless public spending is restored and coupled with access to high-paying employment, preventive and emergency health care, and safe, secure, and affordable housing, then it is hard to take seriously the expressions of outrage at the poverty and racism in this country.

In the past month, we have seen that it is possible for local and national governments to act in ways that protect people. The federal government has suspended interest and collection of federal student-loan payments until September, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has declared a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions of government-insured mortgages. Some cities and states have halted evictions from rental properties, and municipalities across the country have released thousands of people from jails and prisons. Local law enforcement has pledged not to make arrests for misdemeanor offenses. In Detroit, officials pledged to stop turning people’s water off when they can’t pay their bills. If all of these actions are possible in a national emergency, because we believe that they will mitigate people’s vulnerability to disease and death, then why can’t this always be the standard? After all, when is it ever a good time to turn off someone’s access to potable water? One cannot continue to decry the rising rates of black death while preparing to change not a single thing about our failing political and economic systems.

“When is it ever a good time to turn off someone’s access to potable water?

The difficulty in making these decisions is not only about a lack of political will. In 1968, during another period of social upheaval, Martin Luther King, Jr., explained that the power of the black movement lies not only its capacity to fight for the rights of African-Americans but in its revelation of the “interrelated flaws” of American society, including “racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.” The “black revolution,” King continued, has the power to expose “the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

Even when the flaws in our society are so easy to point out, resolving them comes into immediate conflict with the very basic assumptions of governance in the country today. Repairing the deep, historical, and continuing harm done to black people will require deep, abiding transformations. It was true when King wrote these words, more than a half century ago, and it has never been truer than it is today. To fulfill the promise that black lives matter, the United States must change in systemic and not superficial ways.


Public Housing Neglect Creates Lethal Trap

“You have these areas that are not clean and, on top of that, you have folks that don’t have access to health care because of racism and capitalism,” said Philip McHarris, a Yale University doctoral student active in public housing. McHarris wrote an article for Essencetitled, “Public Housing Residents May Be Some Of The Hardest Hit by the COVID-19 Outbreak.”


source:Public Housing Neglect Creates Lethal Trap