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Thousands Join Virtual Rally to Demand World Without Prisons as Coronavirus Spreads in Detention Centers

"In the midst of a global pandemic, prisons are Petri dishes and all sentences are death sentences."

Human rights activists prepare for a car caravan protest through downtown Los Angeles to call on officials to release inmates from jails to prevent the spread of coronavirus, April 7, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

More than 25,000 people attended a virtual rally held on Facebook and Zoom Friday in honor of Palestinian Prisoners Day to call for worldwide prison abolition as the coronavirus pandemic causes deadly outbreaks in detention centers around the globe.

Human rights advocates and prison abolitionists including Mariame Kaba, former Palestinian prisoners Ahed Tamimi and Dareen Tatour, and Marc Lamont Hill spoke at the rally organized by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The speakers demanded a "world without prisons" and warned about the grave danger of keeping millions of people—many of whom have committed minor, non-violent crimes and who have not yet been tried in court—in confinement during a global pandemic.

"In the midst of a global pandemic, prisons are petri dishes and all sentences are death sentences," JVP said in a press statement.

Watch the rally below:

More than 1,300 inmates in U.S. prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. In Israeli military prisons, the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-detainees' Affairs told Al Jazeera Friday, at least 700 Palestinians have contracted the virus.

"Our prisoners are rotting in Israeli prisons and they have been there for years," said Tatour, who served 97 days in an Israeli prison for poetry she published on social media. "Their health is deteriorating daily because they are thrown in small cells with no windows, light, or air. Our prisoners are suffering daily from the epidemic of occupation, oppression, suffering, and medical neglect. In these difficult days of coronavirus, the prison administration is taking advantage of this pandemic and global crisis. On Palestinian Prisoners Day, we unite in our commitment to work together until Palestinians are liberated and Palestinian prisoners are set free, and we finally are all cured from this disease."

In some states in the U.S., officials have released hundreds of inmates from state and city prisons to reduce the risk of outbreaks.

The pandemic, said Hill, should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. and all societies which prioritize incarceration over restorative justice, as the public health crisis has shown "how dangerous prisons are."

"The overcrowding in prisons in Palestine and the U.S. means that if you are arrested for throwing a rock, or writing a poem, or for politically dissenting, you aren't being imprisoned for a few months—you're getting a death sentence," Hill said.

During the rally, supporters made hundreds of calls to elected officials to urge them to back the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together Act (FIRST Act), a bill introduced this week by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) to release immigrants from detention and halt most immigration enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic. Dozens of immigrants in detention in the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus.

"Our future and imaginations are important because the horizon I work for is one I've never seen—a world without prisons, without policing or surveillance," said Kaba, founder of the grassroots group Project NIA, which works to abolish youth incarceration. "In order to create these pathways, we have to lead with imagination and envision: What can we grow instead of punishment and suffering?"

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