Virtual event centers vulnerability of inmates amid COVID-19, features Martin Luther King III

Can't make it to or missed the event? Visit for recordings post-live event.

Bipartisan criminal justice reform and prisoner advocacy group Dream Corps #cut50 planned to hold its annual Day of Empathy events in Memphis and across the nation today. But with COVID-19 and the recent shelter in place orders locally and in many other cities, they had to get creative.

Throughout the day, #cut50 will host free virtual streaming events in 40 states and Canada. In previous years, Day of Empathy events have focused on more general and longstanding justice reform issues and have highlighted the ongoing work of its national, state, and local organizers.

“People, including elected officials, don’t always see the value in enacting policies that support certain groups. Day of Empathy is aimed at developing empathy and support for both currently and formerly incarcerated individuals," said DeAndre Brown, #cut50’s lead organizer for Tennessee.

This year's events will do the same but will also focus on a more time-sensitive problem: the prison population’s extreme vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Memphis-area virtual event begins at 10:30 CST. Register here or click here for more information. Memphians can also join in by texting Empathy to 97483. Guests can join the event at any time. 

High profile speakers for the national virtual event will include CCN commentator Van Jones, actress Alyssa Milano, and activist Martin Luther King, III. That event begins at 2 p.m. CST. Register here or click here for more information.

Related: "Children and former inmates lift up Frayser through improvisational theater"

Brown is a former inmate who now serves as pastor of Lifeline to A Dying World Ministries. He and his wife Vinessa Brown will host the Memphis virtual Day of Empathy and will discuss the pressing issue of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, as well as and the recommendations from the governor’s task force. Brown served on that taskforce.

In jails and prisons, close quarters and limited access to healthcare make inmates especially high-risk for contagious spread of any illnesses. Employees, visitors, and new inmates can bring viruses into the facility, and inmates have few ways to protect themselves. You can't social distance an entire prison.

“For people who are incarcerated, something so simple as an individual having pink eye can be perceived as catastrophic,” said Louis L. Reed, national organizer for #cut50

Reed, who holds degrees in criminal justice and psychology, spent almost 14 years serving in federal prison and has seen this issue up close.

“ ... because folks are in such close quarters and the healthcare is subpar and treatment cavalier.” Reed said of the underlying causes for contagious spread.

Brown, Reed, and #cut50 are calling for elected officials to enact policies to protect the prison population during the pandemic. These policies include:
  • Paroling nonviolent offenders over the age of 65 who are most vulnerable to COVID-19
  • Releasing nonviolent offenders scheduled to be released in the next 6 months
  • Suspending insurance co-pays for the incarcerated
  • Making hand sanitizer available to inmates free of charge
  • Enacting smart social distancing practices for parolees and probationers so that they can report to parole and probation officers via internet, phone, or other no-contact solutions
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office confirmed on March 23 that one of its employees at the Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar Avenue tested positive for COVID-19. No inmates have tested positive, but it's unclear how many inmates have been tested.

The county sheriff's office along with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and other state and local agencies have taken steps to reduce the number of people held in its Poplar Avenue and Jail East facilities.

Many people incarcerated in Shelby County are there for nonviolent offenses or are awaiting trial for a nonviolent offense but are unable to make bail. 

#cut50 was founded by several criminal justice reform activists, including Van Jones. The group has led criminal justice efforts to revise and remove unduly harsh drug laws, give dignity to women in prison, and end the school-to-prison pipeline. The group’s Empathy Network is made up of 300+ grassroots organizations and leaders in 46 states who are committed to sharing their stories and working directly with lawmakers on policy solutions.

Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.