This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The Huffington Post explains how officials at California’s Terminal Island federal prison successfully contained a deadly coronavirus outbreak. Two weeks ago, Terminal Island had the biggest known outbreak in the federal penal system: more than 700 inmates, nearly 70% of the prison’s population, had tested positive for COVID-19. Now, 567 inmates have fully recovered and new cases are down, thanks to proactive quarantine measures and an aggressive testing strategy. USA Today outlines three much-needed criminal justice reforms: practicing restorative justice, implementing misdemeanor reform, and passing legislation that would eliminate punishment for parole violations. A piece from the Wall Street Journal illustrates the challenges faced by courts around the country as they attempt to resume jury trials. Nationwide lockdowns have brought jury trials, a pillar of the American justice system, to a near-total halt. Now, courts are starting to move forward in a socially-distanced world, holding trials over Zoom, in reconfigured courtrooms, and, in one Montana county, at a repurposed high school gym. And The New Yorker questions the future of mass incarceration in a post-pandemic world. For decades, community groups have pointed out the social costs of mass incarceration; now, coronavirus has exposed its public-health risks as well. Since the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of inmates have been released from prisons and jails – a reduction that would have seemed inconceivable just three months ago. Now, courthouses are beginning to reopen and corrections officials are contemplating a “new normal,” but what exactly that will look like remains unclear.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A Reuters investigation reveals the “hidden toll” of COVID-19 behind bars. Reuters reports that even as the virus continues to spread through America’s prisons and jails, testing remains spotty at best, and many confirmed cases are going unreported. The resulting lack of data has troubling implications not just for incarcerated people and corrections staff, but for their families and communities as well. Slate highlights the disturbing lack of transparency in the criminal justice system – a design feature, not a bug. A piece from The Marshall Project focuses on the plight of mentally ill criminal defendants. Even before the pandemic, criminal defendants in need of “competency restoration” often waited weeks or months in county jails for a hospital bed to open up. Now, the COVID-19 crisis has stalled many cases even further, and some are finding themselves stuck in virus-ridden jails while their mental health deteriorates. And a piece from the Washington Post recounts the “last days of a COVID-19 prisoner.” In January, 52-year-old Charles Hobbs was arrested and charged with an obscure technical violation that neither he nor his family fully understood. In March, as the pandemic began to spread, a judge ordered Hobbs released to house arrest, citing his multiple underlying health conditions and increased risk of infection. But, for reasons that remain unclear, Charles Hobbs was never released; he contracted the virus in jail and died at the beginning of May – a victim of deliberate indifference and bureaucratic incompetence by those sworn to protect him.
In complex crime storytelling: Jacobin Magazine revisits the “stranger danger” panic of the 1980s and its role in the rise of mass incarceration. In the early ‘80s, a supposed epidemic of child kidnappings and murders escalated into mass hysteria. Amid a nationwide moral panic, the Reagan administration cracked down, enacting the tough-on-crime, harsher-penalties policies that would give rise to mass incarceration. A piece from the New Yorker from 1986 goes inside the world of Edna Buchanan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald during its heyday. And The Appeal recounts the story of Willie Mae Harris, who was convicted of killing her husband and sentenced to life in prison in 1985. Harris testified that her husband’s death was a tragic accident preceded by years of abuse; although evidence could have proved her claims, none of it was presented in court. Since she first started petitioning for executive clemency in 1998, the Arkansas Parole Board has recommended Harris for release five separate times. This week, The Appeal reported that after 34 years in prison, Harris, now 72 and fully blind, was finally granted parole.
And in culture/true crime: The Atlantic reviews Hightown, a new series from Starz. In typical crime-drama fashion, the show revolves around a “hard-drinking, hard-boiled investigator” and a mysterious death. But Hightown plays with and subverts these stereotypes: set on Cape Cod at the height of Massachusetts’ opioid epidemic, the show features an openly gay female protagonist and grapples with themes of substance abuse, addiction, and recovery. AnOther Magazine interviews the artist Sterling Ruby, whose 2019 video STATE confronts the social and environmental impacts of mass incarceration. Ruby spent years traversing California by helicopter, compiling aerial footage of the 35 institutions that make up the California state prison system. In the video, Ruby’s camera spans pristine deserts and forests before settling on vast, monolithic collections of buildings – the architecture of mass incarceration. The full video of STATE is now viewable online, along with Ruby’s comments on the project and its renewed significance in light of COVID-19. And the Hollywood Reporter reviews American Trial: The Eric Garner Story. Eric Garner’s 2014 death at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo – and his dying words, “I can’t breathe” – became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Pantaleo was fired, but a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict him, provoking widespread outrage about the lack of accountability in police brutality cases. American Trial is an unscripted courtroom drama that stages Pantaleo’s trial with real prosecutors, defense lawyers, and witnesses. Garner’s real-life widow, Esaw, appears as a witness in the film; she discusses the experience in an interview with the Daily Beast. Somewhere between documentary and fiction, American Trial is an affecting imaginative experiment, an attempt to supply the justice Americans were denied in 2014.