Jose Armendariz with his mother Reyna.

“Tough biscuits,” one person wrote.

“Is this the part where I’m supposed to care?” another person commented.

These comments were made in reference to an article written by Nigel Duara of CalMatters titled, “Like a Petri Dish for the Virus: Tens of Thousands of Inmates Are at Risk.” The story detailed the dangerous conditions in jails and prisons throughout California and the inability of jailors to keep incarcerated people safe from the dangers of the Coronavirus. As one of the referenced inmates in this story, I was shocked to see how easy it was for so many people to completely disregard our right to live. The comments made by these people reflect a knee-jerk reaction based on hate, rather than a reasoned response grounded in fact.

I am a twenty-nine-year-old man who suffers from multiple underlying health conditions: diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. This puts me in the highest category of vulnerable people at risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Conditions behind bars were unsafe long before the threat of the Coronavirus arrived. Many other diseases and alarming abuses continue unabated but just don’t receive as much publicity. Sheriff’s officials and district attorneys speak to the media and portray jails and prisons as some of the safest places someone can possibly be in. Their ability to blatantly lie to the faces of the very people they are sworn to protect is nothing short of criminal.

People are concerned for their safety as some of us are released early, and, though the people have every right to express their concerns, most of us are not career criminals. Many of us have spent years behind bars working on our rehabilitation and preparing to return to a society that we hope will accept us back. And what about those of us who are innocent, who have spent years behind bars while the wheels of justice laggardly turn to determine our fate? Though to some of you it might be hard to believe, there are certainly innocent people behind bars. Do you just write these innocent men and women off as collateral damage?

It is often said, “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” But one can reasonably argue that this moral test doesn’t just apply to the government alone but to society as a whole. “How dare a criminal speak up about morals and ethics?” some of you will surely cry out. But dare I do, for that criminal many of you consider me being is no longer a representation of the man I am today. And I am not the only person behind bars who has turned their lives around.

Is it easier to disregard the value of my life simply because I am incarcerated? To some of you, perhaps it is. But for the majority of you, I hope that what you are reading causes you to take action. Reach out to your sheriff and demand that he provide substantive evidence that safe and precautionary measures to protect the incarcerated population are indeed taking place.

This will not only benefit those of us behind bars but the communities to which we will eventually return as well. The victims and those who have been affected by crime shall certainly not be forgotten, but there are forms of restorative justice that can also be achieved and, in many cases, have been found to be than the tooth-for-a-tooth, eye-for-an-eye form of justice currently in existence.

And for the ardent supporters of our Constitution, I quote the following: “That the Eighth Amendment protects against future harm to inmates is not a novel proposition. The Amendment, as we have said, requires that inmates be furnished with the basic human needs, one of which is reasonable safety. It is cruel and unusual punishment to hold convicted criminals in unsafe conditions” (Helling v. McKinney, 1993, United States Supreme Court). This sentiment is also echoed by our own Supreme Court here in the state of California: “The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. Under our constitutional analog, the state must exercise the power to prescribe penalties within the limits of civilized standards and must treat its members with respect for their intrinsic worth as human beings” (People v. Diller, 1983, California Supreme Court).

This pandemic is affecting the whole world, and this includes the millions of us who are currently behind bars. A little boy saw hundreds of thousands of starfish wash ashore. Immediately, he began to throw one by one back into the sea. As he was doing this, a man passed by and asked the boy what he was doing. The boy replied to the man and said that he was returning the starfish to the water. The man laughed and said, “There are thousands of them. It won’t make a difference.” The boy picked up another starfish, tossed it into the water, looked at the man, and said, “It made a difference to that one.” You may not be able to help all of us return home, but you can use your voice and help save the lives of those of us you can

Jose Armendariz is an incarcerated student, writer and [organizer]. His story and work has been covered in Cal Matters and La Opinion.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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