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Organizers at UCI collect donations to help prisoners released early to help stop COVID-19 spread in jails

Supplies for "solidarity packs" for prisoners collected at UC Irvine.
Nalya Rodriguez and Courtney Echols are leading an effort at UC Irvine to collect supplies for “solidarity packs” for prisoners that will soon be released into a pandemic-ridden world.
(Courtesy of UCI4COLA)

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on July 10 that approximately 8,000 California prisoners could be released ahead of schedule to stop the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 inside state prisons, Nalya Rodriguez watched as organizations planned ways to support those who would soon be released into a pandemic-ridden world.

Place4Grace, which serves families impacted by incarceration, started Rides2Freedom, which coordinates pick-ups and drop-offs for those who might not have easy ways to get back home, especially if their prisons are miles away from their families sheltering in place.

Rodriguez, a sociology PhD student at UC Irvine who has been organizing around prison issues for about eight years, wanted to find a way for people who might not be able to give rides to help.

She reached out to Place4Grace to see if the prisoners had need for supplies and learned that often times the newly released prisoners are sitting in the release area for hours without basic necessities.

For the last week, Rodriguez and Courtney Echols — organizers for the newly formed People’s Coalition of UC Irvine — and their volunteers have been putting together backpacks filled with supplies to give to these prisoners.

UC Irvine solidarity packs
After collecting donations, Nalya Rodriguez, Courtney Echols and the People’s Coalition of UC Irvine volunteers create solidarity packs made of basic supplies like hand sanitizer, masks, hygiene kits, water and snacks.
(Courtesy of UCI4COLA)

The “solidarity packs” include hand sanitizer, personal hygiene kits, face masks, tissues, waters, snacks and $25 gift cards.

“The gift cards are to allow them to have some money to buy a fresh set of clothes,” Rodriguez said. “So that they feel like new as they come into our communities.”

Rodriguez said they were inspired by the work already being done by organizations including 714 Mutual Aid, which collected supplies for folks recently released from the Santa Ana county jail.

“It’s to show them that as they’re being released, that your community cares,” she said. “Your community is here and we want you to thrive with us.”

Officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that those with fewer than 180 days left in their sentence and those older than 30 will be given priority. No one serving time for a crime defined in state law as violent or involving domestic violence would be set free, officials said, nor would those required to register as sex offenders.

In the first week, the People’s Coaltion raised $1,700 and created about 78 solidarity packs. During Thursday’s emergency drive at UC Irvine, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., they raised over $2,400 and collected hundreds of donations ranging from food to menstrual products, socks and backpacks.

Nalya Rodriguez and Courtney Echols led a donation drive at UC Irvine
Nalya Rodriguez and Courtney Echols led a donation drive at UC Irvine on July 23 that raised $2,400 and collected hundreds of donations for prisoners that will soon be released to stop spread of COVID-19 in jails.

Both Rodriguez and Echols, a UC Irvine PhD student in criminology, law and society, also organize for UCI4COLA, which started in February, inspired by UC Santa Cruz students advocating for a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) on their campus to support those affected by the ongoing housing crises in California.

The People’s Coalition, which started in June, is also working on projects including the expansion of a critical race theory conference on campus and the development of an anti-racism program for PhD students and for the school of education.

Both organizations collaborate on biweekly mutual aid fundraisers for the Irvine community.

Echols said that UCI4COLA has been able to redistribute $15,000 from donations to students in need of emergency funds.

They’re trying to create as many solidarity packs as possible before the anticipated release of prisoners later this month and in early August.

The next mutual aid drive is scheduled for July 31.

“This is a really scary time,” Rodriguez said. “They’re being released into a society where people are dying. There’s nothing we can do about it. But we saw that there was a need and that we have the resources to put something together to contribute to the community.”

Monetary donations can also be sent through Venmo @uci-mutual-aid. Rodriguez also encourages donations to Place4Grace’s Rides2Freedom program and Choices For Freedom’s Home4Good program to support their efforts.

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