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 April 5.
WEEK 4 (APRIL 5-11)
On Monday, April 6, Governor Michael L. Parson issued a “Stay Home Missouri” order, making the “Show Me” state one of the very last to shut down. That same day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo extended his state’s “NYS on Pause” order for an additional two weeks, explaining: “This virus is an enemy that the entire country underestimated from day one and we have paid the price dearly.” Tuesday, April 7, the US registered more than 2,000 coronavirus-related deaths, making the disease the number one killer in the nation. By Wednesday, the spread of COVID-19 throughout the nation’s jails and prisons was becoming statistically discernible. Six prisoners had died in the past week, as well as two corrections staff; 320 corrections staff tested positive for the virus. The week beginning April 8 would see an additional fourteen prisoners and three staff members die, and the infection rate among prison staff triple. Inmate testing was still woefully inadequate.
Week Four opened with a wide-ranging piece from The Intercept by Nick Pinto; in As Coronavirus Looms In Federal Detention, People Inside Are Being Denied Constitutional Right To Speak With Lawyers, Pinto directs readers’ attention from New York City’s jails to its federal prisons, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where BoP administrators seemed willfully ignorant of Rikers’ grim precedent. Pinto details an April 1, Federal Court teleconference in which Assistant US Attorney Louis Pellegrino argued against the early release of James Woodson, “an HIV-positive, immunocompromised person with hypertension and chronic lung conditions.” Pellegrino engaged in some jaw-dropping statistical sleight of hand, suggesting that because only four inmates out of a population of 700 at MCC had tested positive, Woodson was actually safer behind bars than free. This, despite the fact that dangerously few tests had yet to be administered to inmates, even as the disease was rampaging through other federal facilities, including the one at Danbury, Connecticut. “So we don’t think an emergency exists such that Mr. Woodson, even with his heightened risk factors, is going to be any better off getting out of MCC,” Pellegrino summarized, defying all obvious indicators. “Whatever MCC’s problems have been both historically and in the recent past, they seem to be doing a very good job of containing this, as compared to the outside world.”
The Fed’s Tweedledum-Tweedledee response to COVID-19 in its prisons shifted somewhat when on Friday, April 3, Pellegrino’s boss, US Attorney General Bill Barr, issued a memorandum to the Federal Bureau of Prisons responding to outbreaks at BoP facilities, in Oakdale, Louisiana; Elkton, Ohio; and the aforementioned Danbury. The memo bullet-point read: “Immediately Maximize Appropriate Transfers To Home Confinement Of All Appropriate Inmates.” On Monday, April 4, Barr expanded on this directive, stressing to top prosecutors that “You should now consider the medical risks associated with individuals being remanded into federal custody during the COVID-19 pandemic.” But as Josh Gerstein points out in Barr Says Bail Decisions Should Consider Virus Risks (Politico, April 6), the Attorney General’s advisories represented more of a head-fake than a true change of direction. Though he paid lip-service to compassionate early release, Barr undercut that impulse with grim invocations of American carnage: “COVID-19 presents real risks, but so does allowing violent gang members and child predators to roam free.” As many a sports coach has advised, when you’re being juked, watch the hips, not the eyes.
Sadie Gurman, Zusha Elinson and Deanna Paul’s Wall Street Journal piece on Oakdale, Coronavirus Puts A Prison Under Siege (April 6), highlights even more Orwellian double-speak from Barr and the BoP. The authors write that the BoP, criticized for being slow to respond to the coronavirus, explained that it “has been implementing a plan to stem the spread in phases that have included suspending visitation, limiting transfers of inmates between prisons and holding newly arriving prisoners in quarantine for 14 days.” The reality on the ground, the authors contend, put the lie to this. “Guards say they are hesitant to report symptoms because they don’t want to have to use sick time to quarantine for 14 days. Inmates say they are reluctant because they don’t want to go into isolation or force cellmates into quarantine.” Corrections union representative Corey Trammel nailed the issue in seven words: “Pray this don’t get in your joint.”
State prison authorities were also flailing. In Louisiana’s Coronavirus Plan for Prisons Could Create Death Camps (April 7), The Intercept’s Alice Speri and Akela Lacy examine Louisiana’s dangerous plan to transfer coronavirus-positive inmates to the state penitentiary at Angola, isolating them in that facility’s notorious Camp J. The Camp J unit, Speri and Lacy point out, was shut down in 2018 “because of inhumane treatment of prisoners, crumbling infrastructure, and poor ventilation.” Ben Cohen, counsel for the New Orleans-based inmate advocacy group Promise of Justice Initiative, cut through all the officialese and expressed a bitter truth: “The [Louisiana] Department of Corrections has essentially had a policy of reducing incarceration by allowing people to die for years at Angola.”
Across the country, state prison systems were confronting the grim reality of COVID-19 outbreaks in their jails. During the week, Chicago’s Cook County Jail surpassed Rikers Island as the nation’s “largest-known source of coronavirus infections,” note Timothy Williams and Danielle Ivory in The New York Times (Chicago’s Jail Is Top U.S. Hot Spot As Virus Spreads Behind Bars, April 8). The competition for that top spot was fierce. Williams and Ivory report that “at least 41 clusters of two or more coronavirus cases centered on prisons or jails” had been identified nationwide, with large clusters appearing at “the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., which is tied to more than 100 cases; the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., linked to more than 90 cases; and the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., where at least 58 inmates and staff have tested positive.”
COVID-19 outbreaks in Arizona, Texas and Florida jails were the subject of other gripping stories. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explores the ravages of COVID-19 on the Miami-Dade jail system in The Emergency in Florida Jails (April 9). He interviews Maya Ragsdale, a former public defender who works with the criminal defense non-profits Fem Power and Dream Defenders. Ragsdale offers a harrowing account of her recent visits to Miami’s Metrowest Detention Center, telling Friedersdorf that “I’ve never experienced something that feels so urgent. You’re seeing what’s happening at Rikers, what’s happening in Cook County, where the rate of infection is absolutely horrific. It’s just so, so, so important to decarcerate as soon as possible, because just releasing people frees up space for people who remain… I’ve never experienced such a moral calling to act.”
The need to free up space was also putting renewed pressure on state parole systems. Lauren Gill’s April 7 article in The Appeal, ‘It’s Absolute Hell.’ Coronavirus Derails Parole Hearings Across U.S. As Health Risks To Prisoners Grow, zeroes in on the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole and its devastating decision to cancel hearings for almost two months. Gill compares this reaction to that of Oklahoma, North Dakota, Connecticut and Mississippi, where parole hearings continued via video- or teleconference. University of Alabama law professor Heather Elliott, who co-authored a letter of protest to Governor Kay Ivey, was dismissive of Alabama’s professed inability to apply 21st Century technology to hearings. “I’m sure they have computers at the parole board,” she sneered. “They can download Zoom.”
The week’s most trenchant piece came from columnist James M. Doyle, writing for The Crime Report. In Public Health, Justice and COVID-19: A Tragedy Foretold (April 8), Doyle teases out the public policy overlaps between how we as a society have dealt with the coronavirus and our incarcerated; the parallels he draws are eye-opening and gut-wrenching. “A genuine disease, COVID-19,” he writes, “now threatens to teach us crucial lessons about the poverty of our criminal justice discourse — about our fixation on treating criminal offenders as if they are pathogens.” Doyle acknowledges that our carceral system puts inmates, correctional staff and surrounding communities equally at risk and that we should reassess our expectations concerning this inclusive system. “Remember,” Doyle remind us, “that the basic goal here is not control; the goal is safety — everyone’s safety, crime victims’, cops’, communities’, and prisoners’ too. Do that and you can’t sustain the pretext that public health and criminal justice are two separate and independent silos. You have to recognize that for all practical purposes they constitute one complex adaptive system.”
Doyle crafts his argument with admirable precision, concluding that the coronavirus and criminal justice demand “joined-up solutions.” He ends his analysis with a stirring call to arms, one that speaks to this pandemic moment and the many public policy challenges that will follow. “If we collaborate across the whole range of public health and justice work,” Doyle urges, “we can accomplish something real when we ‘bend the curve.’ Take fewer people in; let more people out.”