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Joe Biden Promised Bold Justice Reforms. So Where Are They?

My husband Nick died from COVID-19 in March 2020 while imprisoned pretrial. Joe Biden has said he’d help others like him before it’s too late. But so far, the president has yet to make good on his promises.

Photo provided by the Maryland government.

This piece was published in coordination with Zealous, an organization working to challenge injustice through media, storytelling, and the arts.

Four years ago, Joe Biden proposed one of the boldest criminal justice platforms in American history. He pledged to use his presidential clemency power to free people convicted of “nonviolent” drug crimes, end incarceration for all “nonviolent” drug use, stop the use of cash bail, and abolish solitary confinement. Now, as he runs for re-election, what can he show for these promises? 

Well, beyond commuting 124 sentences and issuing 13 pardons, not much. 

These issues hit close to home. Four years ago, while Biden was sweeping the Democratic primary, I received a fateful phone call: I was told my husband, Nick, was dead. That he had died because he had contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated, pretrial, at Chicago’s Cook County Jail in March 2020 before even being convicted of anything. That he died despite every effort I put into saving him. For weeks after Nick first told me he was exhibiting symptoms, I called Tom Dart, the Cook County Sheriff, 132 times to try to free him or get anyone to care about his life. Dart ignored me. And then, still, I had to fight to be heard. 

Dart and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office tried to claim that my husband died because of an underlying condition. They tried to claim the same for the others who died, even though Cook County Jail was the nation’s top COVID-19 hotspot in spring 2020. I fought to make sure people did not forget Nick’s death, as well as the deaths of other incarcerated people. I protested in front of the jail. I wrote op-eds. I talked to the press—really to anyone who would listen. And I worked with local artists and national advocacy groups on an illustrated video series called 132 Calls to make our story and demand for justice as clear as day. 

I served proudly as a public school teacher for 15 years. But since Nick died, I’ve become a champion for freedom and accountability for those still locked up and unheard. Every day, I fight for freedom from pretrial detention, imprisonment, solitary confinement, surveillance, and other forms of violent state control that only make us less safe, less healthy, and less secure. I spend most of my time connecting with families, community members, and people on the inside who have been impacted by the criminal legal system’s cruelty. By protesting the conditions in which our friends and family are held, I am ensuring those in power do not forget or silence us. I can’t bring my loved one back, but I can make sure other people don’t lose theirs. 

As we enter another election season, I want to ask President Biden the hard questions. Why haven’t we seen any of his campaign promises in action? Why has he forgotten about the millions of Americans who are currently held behind bars—nearly half a million of which are incarcerated pretrial on any given day in this country?

Biden’s inaction is especially disappointing because his life has also been touched by loss and grief. He, too, once received a phone call that no parent or spouse should ever have to—informing him that his wife and one-year-old daughter had died in a car accident. He should know that grief never disappears. I have to live for my husband, as well as for myself, because I want him to see that I am fighting for him and that I want justice for him. Through doing this work every day, I have learned that there are no limits to my grief and my empathy. 

But it is hard to tell whether Biden’s empathy recognizes people like me, Nick, those who have died in Cook County Jail, or the incarcerated people still dying there today. People whose families and loved ones grieve those they have lost. Or people who they might lose to years behind bars. 

As long as people are still dying in Cook County Jail—and in jails and prisons across the United States—my fight is not over. But is President Biden finally ready to join this fight? 

By enacting the very promises he pledged on the campaign trail, starting with supporting the End Solitary Confinement Act and exploring innovation options like administrative clemency, Biden could end so much suffering, grief, and loss. My husband was loved. Like every human being, he deserved to live much longer than he did. To help others like Nick, we need President Biden to keep his word and use his power to free incarcerated people. The president and I both know that every day with a loved one matters. The time to act is now.

ICYMI—From The Appeal

At a Senate hearing last week, Bureau of Prisons officials conceded that the federal prison system is in “crisis.” But while they pointed to issues related to staffing shortages, advocates say more must also be done to reduce the incarcerated population.

Five public defenders are running for judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court. Voters will decide whether to elect candidates who support alternatives to incarceration—or maintain the status quo by electing prosecutors to the bench.

A class action lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania this week seeks to bar the state’s prisons from using indefinite solitary confinement or placing anyone with mental illness in isolation units. One plaintiff says he’s been in solitary for the last dozen years.

Three Democratic lawmakers asked the Bureau of Prisons to cut ties with the American Correctional Association, a nonprofit accreditation agency and trade group, which the lawmakers say operates a corrupt system that abets human rights abuses.

In the News

The invisible labor of women who love incarcerated people: There are few things more important for people in prison than keeping links with the outside world. That task falls overwhelmingly to women. [Rachel Zarrow and Christopher Blackwell / The Nation]

Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry is set to authorize using the electric chair and nitrogen gas in executions and eliminating parole for all adults who commit crimes after August 1. [James Finn / The Advocate]

A Missouri bill would force teachers to register as sex offenders if they use transgender children’s preferred pronouns or otherwise support their gender identity. [Riverfront Times / Kallie Cox]

Los Angeles city officials spent months suppressing a damning report which found that 94 percent of unhoused people at encampments targeted for removal under the city’s controversial 41.18 law wanted shelter. But, only 18 percent were able to get housing. [Nick Gerda / LAist]

Florida lawmakers are poised to ban civilian police oversight boards from investigating complaints of officer misconduct. [Skyler Swisher / Orlando Sentinel]