Life Is Constantly Calling Us to a Bigger Story:

Reorganizing Society Around Care

I escape from my apartment for the first time in days, into the gloaming. I’ve been working, exercising, sleeping and zooming all within the confines of a ceiling and four walls. So much activity in such limited space. 

I merge into a lavender and burnt-orange sky. Soft, like the skin of a peach, yet fleeting and transparent, like gauzy fabric thrown over a bare shoulder. The sky feels deeper than how I usually experience it, eyes peering into tide pools of indistinguishable colors and shapes. There are only moments left of light.

I drive in the direction of a friend’s house without bothering to turn on my GPS. Without a clear idea of where I’m going and no rush to be there, soon I’m just driving. I take in every detail with a penetrating rawness. The arc over a doorway looks somber, foreboding. A woman wearing shorts and flip-flops in the cold strikes momentary fear, then grief. I drive past a liquor store on my left, my window down, my eyes hungry. 

The back of a man. Heavy boots, dark skin, jeans, gloves, no protective mask. His gait is casual yet directed, his back a little stooped to one side, the ineffable sense of fatigue, one strong shoulder leading the other. I watch him enter the store and in a flash we’re both gone. 

For some reason this moment, out of all the moments during five weeks of the corona pandemic, takes me out of my mortal skins and calls me to a larger story.

A nurse alone in a hotel room between shifts. A warehouse of people afraid and watchful. Adults in their own little worlds and children forced into the world of adults. Women with nowhere to go. Men lost to themselves. All of us, forced together by this virus in dissolution, kinship, an unbounded knowing. This virus as metaphor, as real as reality.

The coronavirus is a mirror. 

This virus exposes our failings by attacking the people we’ve already forgotten, neglected and sometimes left to die—the poor, the elderly, the immunocompromised, the incarcerated, the homeless—the people we’ve systematically ignored. Like artificial intelligence and the climate crisis, this virus magnifies, amplifies and exposes everything that is unequal and wrong with our systems and institutions. Then, when we’re not looking …

The coronavirus leaves us naked.

The human response to this pandemic has been phenomenal, and in my state of California even the government and institutional response has been surprisingly swift, but that makes the inequalities no less glaring. I stand in line for an hour six feet apart to buy groceries. As I struggle to buy eggs, wine and butter without breaking the distance, I think about the filthy homeless encampments I passed on my way to the ocean that morning. When I think about how different populations are being hit, I feel myself shutting down, losing hope. I remind myself the only response is more care.

The coronavirus is a call to duty. 

The coronavirus calls us to show our beliefs, love, politics through our actions. We become parents to our neighbors, checking in and bringing them lemons and paper towels. We imagine living in the skin of an identity entirely more vulnerable than our own. We stop and talk to a trans person on the way to the hardware store and learn about how she’s just been harassed. We slow down and listen to our parents even when what they are saying bothers us. We imagine facing cancer, or living with chronic pain. We imagine changing our lives in order to be an ally to someone with cancer or chronic pain. We feel the limits of what we can do to help one another and we hate it. 

The coronavirus stretches our capacity. 

All of this is hard, all of it. I thought I would be slowing down during shelter in place, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In the last five weeks every relationship in my life has shifted, some drastically, some overnight. Every one of my friends is at a different stage every day with how they’re coping, what they need and what they have to offer.

Everything takes more time now, more focus and consideration. Disinfecting and delivering groceries, the raw skin of constant handwashing, the support threads, the zoom everything, doing dishes in the shower, not seeing your friends’ children so you can keep your mom safe, not touching your mom so you can help keep your immunocompromised lover safe. No matter how hard you try you can always do better. 

The coronavirus is an invitation. 

Every moment begs us to strengthen our ability to understand the feelings of another. What it means to be old, to be stubborn, to be sick, to be emotionally frozen, to be a jerk on the loose in society. Learning how to live and even laugh with the people who don’t give us what we want, who disappoint us. Because in our own hearts and minds each of us is stubborn, sick, old, frozen and a jerk on the loose. 

Crisis houses, respite houses, suicide hotlines, diversion programs, restorative justice circles, accoutability charts, decarceration info sessions. Domestic violence survivors housed in hotels. Doctors in Cuba going door to door on house calls. Had our society been organized around the most vulnerable from the beginning this virus wouldn’t stand a fucking chance.

The corona virus is a long list of questions.

What used to be a solid, unbreakable door is now a scrap of cloth, a thinly veiled message. What do we do with the message? How can we sustain this work, the work of keeping each other alive? How do we reorganize our lives, our communities and our cultures around care? Things have shifted, but how much? And for how long? Ask yourself, at the end of this, what have you discovered that you will be reluctant to lose?

The coronavirus is a promise and a preparation. 

The strong, tired back of a man walking into a liquor store. A woman wearing flip-flops in the cold. As in a war, nothing is mundane. Every object is a promise, every movement a clue. Everything is significant. 

Many of us will emerge from this more prepared to fight the climate crisis, poverty, the next pandemic, every vulnerability we already face and whatever comes next. Many of us will live our lives with more dignity. 

Becoming prepared means inching closer, not arriving, especially when the destination is always so far away. There are many, many layers to this. If we let them, they will continue to peel back for years to come. We will see the change in future generations. 

We are not powerless, we’ve just been called to a bigger story. 

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Dear Readers, 

I’m delighted to report that enough of you subscribed last week to get me through the first month and a half of this newsletter. If you are considering subscribing and haven’t yet, please do so today. Knowing how much support and enthusiasm is out there will help me plan ahead and manage my crazy life as a freelancer and capacity for other projects. Please consider paying for your own plus an extra subscription (or two) that I will gift on your behalf to a formerly incarcerated or low-income reader. 

Either way, I’m in this for the duration. This is not just a novel virus, it’s a novel social reality, with evolving demands. Please download and share our Social Solidarity Chart and COVID-19 reliable fact sheet here and here. I created these with my colleague Harriet Beinfield to help you navigate difficult conversations and the new social demands we're facing as a community.

As always, I welcome your feedback and thoughts. Thank you for being here. 

Sarah Shourd

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Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Public Safety Risk of Mass Incarceration
By Sarah Shourd March 30, 2020

SF GUARDIAN//OPINION // OPEN FORUM https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Coronavirus-crisis-exposes-public-safety-risk-of-15165123.php


Two inmates leave Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. They were among several hundred prisoners granted early release as the county tries to limit coronavirus spread in a vulnerable population.


Two inmates leave Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. They were among several hundred prisoners granted early release as the county tries to limit coronavirus spread in a vulnerable population.


Thousands of people have been released from prisons and jails across the country over the last two weeks for one reason: our collective safety.

Let’s just allow that a moment to sink in.

The freedom of thousands incarcerated citizens is currently being deemed in line with our public safety — it’s an incredible reversal of what we’ve been told by the people locking them up.

And yet this is coming from the people locking them up.

Last week, Sheriff Greg Ahern of Alameda County made the decision to release over 400 prisoners from Santa Rita Jail, all of them low-level offenders with 45 days or less left to serve, and some with chronic health issues.

This act was, of course, a response to the coronavirus pandemic — but this virus is not the only public health issue Santa Rita faces, and it’s not the first.

Santa Rita Jail is the fifth largest in the country, with a capacity to hold 4,000 people. The majority of those incarcerated there have mental health and substance abuse issues. For years Santa Rita’s death rate has exceeded that of the largest jail in the nation, and a large number of these deaths are suicides.

Sheriff Ahern was clear that his decision to decarcerate was in the interest of public health. The coronavirus has made Santa Rita unsafe for his staff, the prisoners, and society — but the sheriff’s decision also begs the question, was his jail safe and healthy in the first place?

Just days after the releases took place, Ahern proposed an $85 million spending bill that would expand his department’s annual budget to more than half a billion dollars.

Though an expansion of programming and mental health services are clearly needed at Santa Rita — choosing this moment to propose a massive funding increase is deeply jarring and hypocritical.

After all, Santa Rita’s population, now 2,171 people, is the lowest it’s been in at least the last decade. Why would you need to drastically expand the budget of a half-empty jail?

Yesterday I spoke with Mike (who asked me not to use his last name), a man in his 40s who was released from Santa Rita on March 19. I asked Mike to describe the circumstances of his release.

“They just came to my cell and said ‘you want to go home early? Then get ready in five minutes.’”

Mike had been in jail for a probation violation since Jan. 13, serving an 80-day sentence.

“Nothing special happened,” Mike continued. “They gave us our belongings and a ride to the BART station. No hand sanitizer, no gloves, no masks, nothing at all.”

The guards told Mike that they were releasing people with nonviolent crimes early. “They didn’t say it had anything to do with corona,” he said, “but that’s what everyone assumed.”

Mike learned about the pandemic on TV. He says he and the 40 other people in his unit had been quarantined for a week and a half leading up to his release.

“They said it was the flu. Everybody had to stay in their unit. Deputies and nurses passed everything through a door. Some of the staff were wearing gloves and masks, some weren’t.”

Mike says a couple people in his unit had flu symptoms, and were tested for corona, but Mike was never told the results.

“I kept myself clean, kept away from people,” Mike said, “but in jail you don’t have control over what’s happening to you ... they’re bringing new people in, you don’t know what they’ve got.”

After hearing this account, some people might come to the conclusion that it would have been safer to keep Mike locked up. After all, if public safety was Sheriff Ahern’s top priority, then why weren’t the releases handled with greater precaution?

Epidemiologists agree that prison walls are no protection against the killer virus we’re facing. Prisons become incubators where infectious disease can thrive. With staff and administrators coming and going, inevitably the virus will leak out, increasing the spread in the greater community.

This prediction has already borne out at Santa Rita Jail, with news last week one of their nurses tested positive for the coronavirus.

When Mike was released he went straight to his mother’s house, where he found her boiling oranges and lemons to clean out everyone’s lungs. On the outside, Mike says he has far more control over his own behavior and practices.

“Seriously, though,” Mike continues, “out here you can do the right thing, keep everything clean, stay indoors, do social distancing, so you won’t be passing anything on—and stay informed.”

Sheriff Ahern did the right thing to decarcerate, but his spending proposal — which will be voted on by the Alameda Board of Supervisors on Tuesday — is an egregious contradiction.

Why can’t the funds freed up from the recent releases be used to improve safety and mental health services for the prisoners that remain?

With nationwide crime already decreasing during the pandemic, how is jail expansion in any way serving public safety?

“The whole world is about to be pushed in a whole new way, everybody gonna have to pull together no matter where you’re from, to take care of each other,” Mike said. “Everybody’s next move is gonna count for something.”

This pandemic is a moment of reckoning for our country and the world, forcing us to look at the ways mass incarceration has made the moment we’re in even more dangerous.

All indications point towards the coronavirus as a giant storm on the horizon both in our prison system and society at large, a disaster that hasn’t yet hit.

Unfortunately, in the weeks and months to come these releases may feel like a drop in the bucket.