As COVID-19 spreads across the United States, Americans are learning to self-isolate and realizing how hard it can be. Bianca Tylek, a long-time prison abolitionist, sees this moment as an opportunity for us to rethink our current justice system—all of it. "Need help dealing with isolation? Call a friend who’s done time in solitary,” Bianca Tweeted. “But first: 1) recognize that this is not even close to the torture they endured 2) appreciate their empathy because they couldn’t call you."
And while her Twitter threads about the history and value of prison labor, correctional health as public health, and the importance of a phone call in prisons have garnered thousands of likes and retweets, Bianca has been doing far more than tweeting during the COVID-19 crisis.
The founder and director of Worth Rises, a national non-profit dedicated to dismantling the prison industry, Bianca explains that she's been "focused on the ways that the prison industry is using the COVID-19 pandemic to further exploit incarcerate people and their families." First and foremost, Bianca is working on getting people out of prison.
She told the Financial Times, "We’re in a really bad position. Contagious diseases move remarkably fast in prison. We have to release people from prison. There’s no other way of looking at it."
Worth Rises has been calling for early releases to prevent COVID-19-related deaths in prisons, asking for data on testing in prisons to protect those currently incarcerated, advocating for free prison phone calls so incarcerated people can regularly reach their families, especially with the suspension of visits, and calling for fair wages for the thousands of incarcerated workers contributing to the emergency response.
Thanks in part to the work of Worth Rises, in early April the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that it made phone calls free for the more than 170,000 people in federal prisons for the duration of the global pandemic.
It was just one year after graduating from Harvard Law School that Bianca founded Worth Rises.
"I was trying to provide one answer to the privatization trend in criminal justice today. But as I started to survey the advocacy landscape, looking for a home for my work, I realized that there wasn’t an organization focused on addressing the broader issue of justice commercialization," Bianca explained. "There were organizations that focused on the privatization of one specific point of the punishment continuum, but it seemed to be an issue that needed a more comprehensive approach or at the very least someone’s direct attention."
The child of a Polish father and Ecuadorian mother, Bianca was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. Raised by non-English speaking relatives, her English suffered, and she was placed and forgotten in remedial classrooms for years. By the time she resurfaced in middle school, trauma and resentment led to delinquency. In high school, Bianca struggled with the murder of her boyfriend, caring for friends suffering from opiate addiction, and her own time on probation.
Despite all that, her grades soared. Bianca was accepted to Columbia University, where her mathematical prowess led naturally to a career in investment banking. But her journey was one she needed to revisit—there were too many people left behind. Bianca transitioned into the social sector, working in strategic innovation for Teach for America and developing College Pathways, an innovative program that prepares men incarcerated on Rikers Island for college-level education.
Bianca received her JD degree at Harvard in 2016. She was a member of Harvard Defenders, the Prison Legal Assistance Project, and Reclaim Harvard Law. ∎