This week, CRIME STORY’S Sean Smith begins a weekly analysis of the news stories aggregated in CRIME STORY DAILY related to COVID-19 and our carceral system. By reconsidering early reporting on the crisis in the light of subsequent developments, CRIME STORY hopes to point out trends in the narrative of COVID-19 and the prisons.

Someday, a granular chronology of this coronavirus’s spread will be written, one that captures all the complexities and contradictions of the crisis. For the moment, CRIME STORY will examine the lethal swath COVID-19 has cut through our penal system, at both the state and federal levels. CRIME STORY DAILY’S coverage of these stories began on March 15. 

WEEK ONE (March 15-21)

Across the US, the response to COVID-19 has been and continues to be both rolling and piecemeal, varying by state and municipality. After the first confirmed case of local, person-to-person transmission of the virus on February 26, 2020, and the first COVID-related death on February 28, it was almost two weeks until municipal and then state stay-at-home orders were issued, establishing the quarantine conditions under which many of us are still living today. During these two crucial weeks, the virus spread, seeping its way into every nook and cranny of American society —our vulnerable prisons and jails included.

Los Angeles issued COVID-19 guidelines for City departments on March 12 and imposed temporary restrictions on the general public on Sunday, March 15. After infighting between Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, New York City issued similar restrictions that same Sunday. Four days later, on March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide pandemic shutdown order. Cuomo followed suit on March 22. By March 23, over three weeks after the first COVID-19 related death, nine states were operating under comprehensive shutdown orders.

In our jails and prisons, awareness and anxiety about the pandemic was metastasizing, in many instances even more rapidly than in the rest of society. On March 17, in her New York Times article, ‘We Are Not a Hospital’: A Prison Braces for the Coronavirus, Danielle Ivory examines responses to the gathering crisis within the nation’s carceral system as individual cases of COVID-19 began to appear. (Note that at the time of her piece’s publication, no state had issued stay-at-home orders yet. Inhabitants of Los Angeles and New York City were only just starting to grumble about no longer being permitted to go to their favorite bars and restaurants.) For their part, inmates and prison staff across the country were already calculating the potential impact of the virus on the vulnerable populations… on either side of the bars. The impracticality of observing social distancing and sanitation guidelines behind prison walls was becoming evident to all. The Federal Bureau of Prisons suspended all visits for 30 days, including those by lawyers. It also barred inmate transfers between facilities. Ivory identifies several areas of concern which, in retrospect, would grow in significance: Widespread shortages of protective gear like gloves and masks; lack of available testing; shared vulnerability of staff and inmates; the likelihood of staff or in-transit prisoners transporting the virus out of or into surrounding communities; and the unique susceptibility of detainees in the country’s largest and most crowded jail systems, especially those housed in New York City’s sprawling Rikers Island complex.

Another potential hot-spot for a COVID-19 prison outbreak was Washington State. At the time, Washington had logged the first novel coronavirus-related death on February 28; during the second week in March, a Washington State Department of Corrections employee tested positive for COVID-19. On March 18, The Marshall Project published its What Coronavirus Quarantine Looks Like in Prison. In the report, two inmates describe their separate experiences of daily life at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. Christopher Blackwell details severe shortages of cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer (noting the irony that hand sanitizer was considered “contraband” because it contains alcohol) and the scarcity of bleach. When cleaning equipment is “criminalized,” Blackwell observes, how is it possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? Fellow inmate Arthur Longworth explores the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown and the inconsistency that “we’re quarantined and the guards aren’t.” Longworth points out that the guards are unwitting vectors, possibly carrying infection from their homes and communities back into the prison and infecting the inmates. Should inmates become infected, “IT WAS ONE OF YOU WHO DID THIS TO US!” Longworth notes. “WE SHOULD BE TRYING TO GET AWAY FROM YOU!”

In Prison, ‘Precautionary Quarantine’ is Just Another Name for Lockdown (The Crime Report, March 20) offers Washington State Reformatory inmate Tomas Keen’s perspective on the disparities of prison life under quarantine. Keen unpacks the paradox that while we’ve all been told that “prisons keep the public safe,” under the present circumstances he “hoped the inverse would be true — that as a prisoner [he] would be insulated from the virus-carrying folks on the outside. Where this thought came from — Walking Dead season 3, maybe — who knows…” In a twist on end-of-the-world movie tropes, Keen admits to quickly establishing an emergency preparation protocol of his own: “call home, place a commissary order, fill up water pitchers, sync the J-Pay communication tablet, take a shower.” He is not alone in this, noting: “As I went about the unit checking tasks off the list, I saw other people shared my idea.” Finally, Keen adds his voice to what will soon be a core criticism of how our prisons confront COVID-19 — that as currently conceived, our prison system makes social distancing not only impractical, but impossible; that by its very nature, design and operation, a prison is an “environment that is defined by crowded cellblocks, pat searches, and standing in line for food, phones, and everything in between.”

The final selection in Week One of CRIME STORY DAILY’S aggregate of articles about prisons and COVID-19 is the March 18 editorial, Coronavirus makes jails and prisons potential death traps. That puts us all in danger. by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board. The Times editors address the shared vulnerability of inmates, guards and the surrounding community, and society’s implicit responsibility to protect those it has incarcerated. They begin by acknowledging that “there are more than 2 million people in the United States who cannot practice social distancing, are prohibited from using or even possessing hand sanitizer and who cannot wash their hands without permission”: our nation’s incarcerated population. The incarcerated require society’s protection. Inmates “are virtually defenseless against the virus. In jails especially — where quarters are cramped, inmate turnover is high, and thousands of people are admitted each day — it is only a matter of time before an infected person who does not yet show symptoms enters one of these locked institutions. And once the virus enters such a confined space, it will spread.”  That spread threatens us all. The Times Editorial Board goes on to praise Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s effort to quickly begin reducing the number of inmates in County lock-up; Villanueva’s effectiveness will be scrutinized in the weeks ahead, and that praise tempered. Finally, the editorial concludes with a solemn vow: “When the crisis abates and we have caught our collective breath, we can ask ourselves why we lock up so many suspects, defendants and convicts in the first place, and whether they all need to be behind bars for us to be safe.” Like others, the Times editors recognize that one of the effects of the pandemic and its social and economic disruptions will be to expose the full range of society’s inequalities. How we address those disparities remains to be seen.

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