CRIME STORY’S Sean Smith continues his 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.

You can find links to each of Sean’s analysis pieces here. This article covers the week beginning March 29. 

WEEK THREE (March 29- April 4)

Virginia, Maryland, Arizona and Tennessee issued stay-at-home orders on Monday, March 30, and Pennsylvania and Florida followed suit on April 1. More than half the states in the nation and an estimated three out of four Americans were now under shelter-in-place restrictions. On April 2, COVID-19 related deaths in New York State topped 2,000; by April 3, the US coronavirus death toll climbed to more than 7,000. Nationally, 3 million restaurant jobs had been lost in the first three weeks of March, and it was feared that number would soon double. On Wall Street, the last day of March marked the end of one of the worst quarters in stock market history.

In the national discussion, New York City’s Rikers Island remained emblematic of the dire public safety and public health consequences of a prison system both caught unprepared by the pandemic and slow to adapt to its challenge. In their March 30 New York Times article, ‘We’re Left For Dead’: Fears of Virus Catastrophe at Rikers Jail, Jan Ransom and Alan Feuer wrote in withering detail about the desperate improvisations adopted by Rikers inmates in order to safeguard their own health. “One inmate used an alcohol pad that a barber had given him after a haircut to sanitize a frequently used Rikers Island jailhouse phone. Another used a sock to hold a phone during a 15-minute call. A third said he and others have used diluted shampoo to disinfect cell bars and table tops.” Corrections staff were both ill-informed and ill-equipped to confront the virus: “[Jail staff members] have been told to bring their own soap into work and to check their own temperature.” Dominic Holden in BuzzFeed News (People Are Bailing Out Inmates From New York City’s Biggest Jail, Where the Coronavirus Outbreak Is Skyrocketing, March 30) noted that with 167 cases of COVID-19 in a prison population of 4,637, Rikers’ infection rate was hovering above 3%, “thereby outpacing infection rates in New York City; Wuhan, China; and Lombardi, Italy,” global pandemic hotspots. The Washington Post’s Megan Flynn captured the jail’s chief doctor, Ross MacDonald, as he offered a grim assessment, anticipating the sort of Trumpian magical-thinking about outcomes that still prevails today (Top Doctor at Rikers Island Calls The Jail A ‘Public Health Disaster Unfolding Before Our Eyes,’ March 31): “This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen. It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth, but as a physician I must tell you it is unlikely. I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true.”

Calls for the early release of select inmates continued, now buttressed by efforts to reduce arrest rates in order to stem the flow of prisoners into the nation’s jails. No longer limited to the East and West coasts, the discussion now included officials from other parts of the country. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf filed a thoughtful analysis of this trend in his Let People Out of Jail (March 31). Friedersdorf flags what we might call a “second wave” of official responses to COVID-19 and our prisons, quoting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on the need for early release strategies and Philadelphia Police Chief Danielle Outlaw on her department’s efforts to reduce arrests of individuals involved in non-violent crimes. Friedersdorf identifies the quandary confronting officials everywhere: “In taking these measures [they] weighed whether public health and safety were better served by keeping prisoners in jail or releasing them, just as they balanced the need for due diligence with the public-health costs of acting too late.”  In Week Three, this dilemma became a national anxiety.

Friedersdorf ended his piece with a plea for action, writing: “If you live near a jail or prison, urge local officials to consider releasing low-level offenders unlikely to threaten public safety so that [COVID-19] outbreaks don’t lead to preventable deaths.” Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, expands on this sentiment in her Washington Post op-ed piece, To Flatten the Curve, Free Some Prisoners. Please (March 31). “Governors, sheriffs, judges and county officials who want to flatten the curve of covid-19 infections in their communities must get serious about reducing overcrowded jails and prison populations,” she writes. Significantly, Kerman argues that the “jailhouse/our house” dichotomy is a false one and that prisons and the communities that surround them are in fact a closed system; in other words, a threat to our incarcerated is a threat to us all. “Our nation’s prisons and jails will soon become uncontrollable super-spreaders of this pandemic,” she predicts, “…and the reach will extend beyond their walls and barbed wire fences.” 

Once it was pointed out, the porous barrier separating incarcerated citizens and everyone else became Topic A in the week’s news accounts. In their piece Why Jails Are So Important in the Fight Against Coronavirus (The Marshall Project, March 31) Anna Flagg and Joseph Neff strike on a timely metaphor for this inclusive ecology: the cruise ship. “Picture thousands of cruise ships jammed with guests but short on hand sanitizer, protective gear and medical care,” they suggest. “Every week, a quarter of the passengers get off, replaced by new people with the potential to either infect or be infected with the coronavirus. There is a place like that in your community: the county jail…”  (An award-winning non-profit news organization founded in 2014, The Marshall Project has been at the forefront of reporting on the criminal justice ramifications of the current public health crisis; CRIME STORY continues to benefit from their investigative rigor and passionate advocacy.) Flagg and Neff establish that the inevitable physical contact between corrections staff and the incarcerated all but guarantees that the coronavirus will flow both into and out of our detention facilities. “The churn of people moving in and out threatens to accelerate the spread of the disease, endangering the incarcerated, the staff and the larger community,” they warn. Or as Rena Karefa-Johnson, an immigration and criminal justice reform advocate, states in Zak Cheney-Rice’s ‘We’re Going to All Start Dropping’: Rikers Inmates on Life as Prisoners of COVID-19 (New York, April 1), “I think it’s very important in this moment that we not let our elected officials talk about public health and safety and only mean some of us. They have to mean all of us.”

Was this empathy tinged with self-interest for some? It would be hard to argue otherwise. But Week Three’s news coverage definitely reflects a renewed appreciation for the shared concerns of citizens behind bars and beyond them. One touchstone for this was, simply put, soap. The scarcity of hand sanitizer in lock-up was already much lamented, but the unavailability of soap on top of that was especially disturbing. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf shapes the issue as a “matter of simple human decency.” In Can’t We At Least Give Prisoners Soap (April 1), Friedersdorf argues that the ability to wash one’s hands is a sine qua non of social existence and that by restricting inmate access to soap and water, the criminal justice system is endangering every single one of us. “Treating soap as a luxury that prisoners must choose in lieu of a snack or shaving cream or a book or a phone call with family members,” he observes, “creates obvious perverse incentives that affect not only the inmates, but all of the people with whom they interact, and even taxpayers, since we all pay for the doctors who treat the spread of prison illness.”

Finally, it was during this week that the federal Bureau of Prisons imposed an unprecedented 14-day lockdown on all its facilities. This was in response to a fatal outbreak of COVID-19 at its Oakdale, Louisiana facility where two inmates died within days of each other. As Keri Blakinger writes in Coronavirus Restrictions Stoke Tensions in Lock-ups Across U.S. (The Marshall Project, April 2), lockdown suspends visits by family and attorneys; it also puts an indefinite hold on many essential rehabilitative programs that inmates depend upon, including meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. The BOP lockdown put a U.S. Government stamp on the carceral system’s heretofore regionalized and scattershot COVID-19 response. From Nebraska to Texas, Massachusetts to Missouri, the failure of our prisons and jails to protect inmates and staff from the rampaging coronavirus was becoming evident to all. Most facilities and communities were slow to embrace needed reforms, hung up on the horns of the public health/public safety dilemma. As Massachusetts state probation chief Edward Dolan tells The Marshall Project’s Beth Schwartzapfel in her Probation and Parole Officers Are Rethinking Their Rules as Coronavirus Spreads (April 3), “It’s really a balancing between the impact of the pandemic, and what we’re willing to collectively tolerate as risk in the community.” By the end of Week Three, the dangerous imbalance had not yet been resolved.