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Memorial for all lives lost in Florida prisons

By Sarah Davis and Michael McLaughlin |
September 3, 2020
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Tallahassee memorial for all lives lost in Florida prisons.
Tallahassee memorial for all lives lost in Florida prisons. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Tallahassee, FL - Grey clouds and rain filled the Florida sky as over 50 mourners from across the state of Florida gathered on the lawn in front of the Florida State Capitol, August 22, to pay their final respects to those whose lives have been taken by the inhumane conditions, gross mistreatment and neglect incarcerated persons inside Florida prisons face every day from guards and abusive government officials.

Who remembers and mourns for those killed by state violence when those deaths are hidden and written off as insignificant by the state itself? “Every year during Black August we commemorate the death of George Jackson and all who have given their lives and sacrificed in the spirit of Black resistance and the struggle for the liberation of Black lives,” says Karen Smith, an organizer with Florida Prisoner Solidarity.

In response to a call from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the prisoner resistance movement, activists from Florida Prisoner Solidarity, Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, Tallahassee Dream Defenders, Tallahassee Community Action Committee, Florida Cares, and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons came together with the loved ones of incarcerated persons to grieve as a community the tragic loss of our incarcerated comrades.

“There has been no acknowledgement of their existence beyond a growing tally of deaths on the Department of Corrections website,” says Smith, “and we refuse to let their lives pass quietly and unnoticed.”

Using large black plastic bags stuffed with newspaper and paper bags, mourner-activists assembled ‘body bags’ to represent the lives of the 85 documented incarcerated persons killed by the State of Florida’s willful negligence in responding to the spread of COVID-19 within its prison system. Mourner-activists respectfully laid the body bags on the Capitol lawn. Each body bags bore a tag bearing the deceased’s name, their date and place of death, as well as the cause of their death: “Murdered by Ron DeSantis,” “Killed by Mark Inch” and “Victim of state violence.”

Mourner-activists lovingly placed fresh flowers upon the body bags of those killed, and stood solemnly in the Florida rain as family and friends of the deceased eulogized their loved ones, shared testimonies from life on the inside, and called on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida Secretary of Corrections Mark Inch, and all those in positions of power within Florida’s prison system to stop murdering our loved ones.

After the memorial service, mourner-activists picked up the body bags from the capitol lawn and carried them in a funeral procession down Apalachee Parkway to the Florida Department of Corrections office on Calhoun Street. There, mourners held 85 seconds of silence, one second for each victim, before laying the body bags in front of the entrance to Mark Inch’s office. Speaking aloud the names of those killed as they gently laid them down, mourners ensured each body bag had fresh flowers placed on it.

The Tallahassee Police Department attempted to intimidate and harass activists when the funeral procession blocked traffic in front of the capitol building. Throughout the summer activists have frequently occupied the intersection of Monroe and Apalachee in front of the capitol, often holding the intersection for hours at a time. This time however, after mourner-activists had been holding the intersection for only a few minutes, an officer declared the assembly unlawful and approximately 20 TPD officers swarmed the scene, all with guns and tasers on their hips, some with clubs drawn, and some refusing to wear face masks despite the pandemic. The officers moved aggressively toward the mourner-activists, who, thanks to the skillful leadership of the Black women heading the action, safely moved back to the capitol lawn.

The police then left the scene, leaving behind an officer whose car continued to block a lane of traffic. Mourner-activists shouted “Black lives matter” and sang Which Side Are You On? as the officer looked on. Turns out the officers’ car battery had died.

Chanting “Free them all,” and holding banners reading “Slavery ended in 1865… DOC keeps it alive,” “COVID + Cages = Murder,” and “Prison abolition now,” mourner-activists confronted the Florida Department of Corrections to demand transparency and accountability regarding the outbreak of COVID deaths and inhuman conditions within Florida prisons.

Karen Smith stated, “Florida prisons are among the worst in the country, with deteriorating conditions that have even worsened amidst COVID. People are suffering and even dying from heat stroke due to the lack of air conditioning, being starved, oftentimes have no access to clean water, experience extreme sentencing and are routinely killed by guards.” She added, “Anyone who speaks out about conditions is sent to long term solitary confinement. As a community committed to the liberation of all people, we will continue to incite a collective consciousness of the inhumanity of the state’s carceral system and demand people pay attention to FDOC’s culture of torture and abuse and take to the streets to demand transparency and accountability.”