An Update from Executive Director Nicole Lee About UPM’s COVID-19 Response

September 23,2020

As Urban Peace Movement continues to evolve our work to meet the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to update our supporters about our response, emerging needs, and how this crisis is impacting our work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced the urgency of pressing for the immediate release of as many incarcerated people as possible. At the beginning of the pandemic, UPM and our allies pivoted quickly to pressure Alameda County Officials such as the District Attorney, the Probation Department, and the Juvenile Courts to release people inside detention facilities early and to implement policies and protections for those who had not yet been released. There have been many alarming outbreaks of the virus in jails, prisons, and other detention facilities throughout the country. Here in Alameda County there have been at least 248 cases in Santa Rita jail (as of September 21, 2020), including the brother of UPM’s Deputy Director. The pandemic further reveals how inhumane and unsustainable mass incarceration is in the first place. 

Here’s what our response has looked like over the past six months:

    • Virtual Operations: UPM is operating virtually for the foreseeable future. Our office is closed, all meetings, programs, and events have been moved online, and we are shifting our campaign tactics to virtual formats as much as possible.
    • Rapid Response to Basic Needs: UPM is responding to the direct and basic needs of our youth members, their families, seniors, and other vulnerable community members. This has primarily entailed no-contact delivery of supplies and resources such as groceries, toilet paper, handsoap, other difficult-to-secure supplies, and gift cards by UPM staff members. We plan to send our community healing team to do outreach with health information & data to encourage staying home if possible and social distance and to hand out masks.
    • Rapid Response to Protect Incarcerated People & Demand Early Release: For incarcerated people, COVID-19 poses a unique and sharply elevated threat. UPM has worked quickly in partnership with allied organizations to secure ongoing accountability from system stakeholders (see more detail below) and advance two demands that center the safety of those in custody in Alameda County:
      • That county officials process as many early releases as possible.
      • That county officials implement emergency measures to protect those who are currently incarcerated such as providing soap, providing additional hygiene supplies, implementing social distancing, conducting screening and testing of both staff and those incarcerated, providing free phone calls and video visitation, and providing accurate and timely information to those inside about the virus, its symptoms, and how it is transmitted.
    • Virtual Healing Circles: To continue providing support in this time when community members are isolated from their loved ones physically. UPM hosted biweekly (now monthly) healing circles open to the public and creating virtual spaces for healing through mindfulness, somatics, and other modalities. We also hosted a virtual memorial for a former member who passed away because holding funerals is currently not possible.

Progress to date:

Through an early push via letters of request to system stakeholders, UPM and our partners, (including the Young Women’s Freedom Center, the Ella Baker Center, Restore Oakland, CURYJ, East Bay Community Law Center, the Justice Reinvestment Coalition, and others) secured weekly standing virtual meetings with Chief of Probation Wendy Still and Presiding Juvenile Judge Ursula Jones Dickson, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, and Public Defender Brendon Woods. Through the Audit Ahern Coalition, we also successfully engaged Sheriff Gregory Ahern. These engagements have enabled UPM and our allies to continue the thread of accountability for demands issued before the pandemic. We remain in close contact with these officials as we continue to demand increased safety for incarcerated people during this health crisis. There are still active outbreaks in county, state, and federal prisons, and to date multiple family members of UPM staff currently in custody in those facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.

As a result of the work of local movement organizations including UPM and our partners, as well as action taken on the part of Alameda County officials, especially the Public Defender’s Office, over 800 people have been released or are scheduled to be released from Santa Rita (approximately 33% of the population before the crisis), and under 2,000 people remain inside where the active outbreak is ongoing. From our understanding, the courts and probation are expediting the processing of young people through the system, which has had the impact of reducing the number of youth currently incarcerated in juvenile hall (although there has been some fluctuation of that number). There was at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Juvenile Hall. As a result of community pressure, the Probation Department agreed to adjust probation requirements so that young people could finish out their probation while sheltering in place. In addition, the Sheriff’s Department at Santa Rita began providing soap, as well as electronic tablets to enable people inside to make calls to family and receive updated information about the virus.

UPM and our allies have moved quickly to protect and advocate for those most vulnerable within the system and we will continue to do so as long as the pandemic lasts. This painfully clear example of how justice system harms are exacerbated in such crises underscores the necessity of the demands we have already been advancing. 


Thank you for standing with us,

Nicole Lee