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 12. 

WEEK FIVE (April 12-18)

April 12 was Easter Sunday. Many celebrated the religious holiday at home or by attending services from the safety of their cars. At Monday’s coronavirus news briefing, President Trump warned reporters that in any power struggle between the White House and governors, the White House wins. “When somebody is the president of the United States,” he boasted, “the authority is total.” On Wednesday, April 15, armed demonstrators surrounded the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan to protest that state’s stay-at-home orders. Trump offered his support, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in all-caps. He hailed similar demonstrations in Minnesota and Virginia as well. In the previous week, 1681 cases of coronavirus had been reported among prisoners; there were 51 deaths.

In the wake of US Attorney General Bill Barr’s April 6 memo to Federal prosecutors advising them to “consider the medical risks associated with individuals being remanded into federal custody during the COVID-19 pandemic,” (see COVID-19 In Prison: Week by Week – Part 4), immigrant rights and criminal justice advocates highlighted the welfare of another cohort of Federal prisoners – ICE detainees. According to The Washington Post’s Marissa J. Lang, in ‘It’s A Time Bomb’: ICE Detainees Seek Release Amid Growing Coronavirus Fears (April 12), ICE detains “nearly 38,000 people in more than 130 private and state-run facilities across the country. The detention centers operate with minimal public oversight and house a range of people – some entered the United States legally, and others entered without authorization; some committed crimes, and others have no criminal records.” Lang exposes the worsening conditions in Federal detention facilities, quoting Hilda Jorge Perez, the wife of an ICE detainee who had been apprehended in a workplace raid: “They only know what they see about the virus on television,” Perez complained. “No one is using masks; nothing is being disinfected.  In the detention center, the guards come and go in the same clothes, they touch everything without sanitizer. It’s a time bomb,” she lamented.  

With this third front opening up in the fight to decarcerate amid the public health crisis, bail and bail funds began to trend as ways to “save a life.” In his New York Times opinion piece (Bail Someone Out of Jail Today, April 14), Neil Barsky, chairman and founder of the Marshall Project, praised the efforts of the many community-based and national organizations “frantically trying to raise money to secure the release of people in jail and immigration detention centers.” Notes Barsky: “What began as a criminal justice initiative has become a public health imperative.”  Other Week Five articles explored the thicket of red-tape and contradictory regulations obstructing parole and early release. Despite the assurances issuing from state houses and city halls, the path to early or compassionate release was not a straight one. In her Texas Tribune feature, Many Texas Prisoners Have Been Approved For Parole But Can’t Walk Free Yet. Advocates Say Coronavirus Should Change That (April 14), Jolie McCullough points out that many Texas inmates, otherwise eligible for parole, were being kept behind bars because they had not completed mandatory “life-skills” programs — programs that had been abruptly suspended by the prison system when the pandemic hit. “It doesn’t make sense to keep someone where there could be high levels of contagion for that type of class,” insists Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “If the programming could reasonably be completed in the community, then make that a parole condition and release the person now.”

Once released, many excarcerated faced uncertainty about housing, employment and healthcare, made all the more difficult because of the public health crisis and resulting downturn in the economy. Writes Karina Piser in Out Of Prison With Nowhere Safe to Go (The New Republic, April 14): “In normal times, reentry is a trying process. Incarcerated people have mental and physical needs at higher rates than those of the general population, and they face significant hurdles to employment on release. These aren’t normal times, though.” Suddenly thrust into the community without a safety net, many former inmates also struggled with the stigma of being a potential coronavirus carrier. “You already have the scarlet letter of a criminal record,” notes Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute. “But now you’re coming out of a correctional setting with the common knowledge that they’re petri dishes for the coronavirus. It will be very easy to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want that person living with me.’” Unsupported by reentry programs and confronting anxious family and friends, some recently excarcerated wondered if life beyond prison walls was an improvement on life within them. “I didn’t have any I.D., no wallet, nothing,” complained one recently released inmate. “If it’s a shelter or jail, I might as well be in jail.”

As the criminal justice and carceral systems floundered towards pandemic work-arounds, inmates and corrections staff were dying. Exact numbers were elusive, due to incompetence, strategic undercounting and the unwillingness of many state Department of Corrections to make their COVID-19 mortality rates public. In her Miami Herald article, Two Inmates at NW Florida Prison Die of COVID-19. State Officials Kept Deaths Secret (April 15), Ana Ceballos writes that the Florida Department of Corrections delayed reporting two coronavirus-related inmate deaths for nearly a week; she points out that the agency’s “daily published updates on the number of workers and inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19” was also inaccurate and out-of-date. Ceballos notes that one of the state’s prison hot-spots was the facility at Blackwater River, privately-operated by The Geo Group, Inc. “The Geo Group,” she notes, “has refused to answer questions about Blackwater’s 41 COVID-19 cases.  The Boca Raton-based company had referred questions to the Department of Management Services, the state agency that oversees private prison contracts.” We may never know the full extent of the devastation COVID-19’s has wreaked on our carceral system – in part because of the eagerness of some private prisons, and their allies in state houses, to protect their operations and bottom line.

If the official numbers were lagging and inaccurate, the deteriorating conditions in our jails and prisons spoke volumes. As Keri Blakinger argues in What Happens When More Than 300,000 Prisoners Are Locked Down (The Marshall Project, April 15), by mid-April “well over 300,000 prisoners were living in full or partial lockdown” in jails and prisons nationwide. A former inmate herself, Blakinger explains just what lockdown means for the incarcerated: “When prisons shut down or limit access to common areas and dayrooms, prisoners can’t make phone calls or take daily showers.  Typically, meals are no longer served in mess halls; in some facilities prisoners may be given peanut butter or baloney sandwiches for weeks.  Every prison system stopped visitation last month, and many began pausing educational and vocational programs, although some prison factory and field work continues.”  Inmates with the virus were further isolated, the conditions of their confinement even more degraded. In D.C. Jail Inmates With Coronavirus Barred From Access To Lawyers, Family, Showers And Changes Of Clothing, Inspectors Say (The Washington Post, April 15) Spencer S. Hsu reports that two court-appointed inspectors visited the D.C. jail and, on emerging, “paint[ed] a squalid if not shocking portrait of sickness behind bars… [They] said inmates with the virus are isolated and prohibited from showering or cleaning their cells. The inmates are also barred from contacting loved ones or attorneys and cannot change soiled clothes, linens or masks for the duration of the illness.”  

Other Week Five articles detailed the frustrations and anguish of public defenders, prevented by the health crisis from communicating with, let alone properly representing, their clients. “How do I attend court on their behalf through a Zoom account?” asked Kenneth Hardin, a Harris County, Texas public defender, in The Marshall Project’s “How Do I Defend People Now?” (April 17). “How can plea arrangements be made without people feeling coerced into pleading guilty, just to get out of jail to be safe from the virus? How do my investigator and I go out into the field to gather evidence when businesses are closed and witnesses are more hesitant than usual to meet with me?”

The carceral system’s fumbling response to COVID-19 has exposed its inequities and priorities. For some, the cruelties and repressions of our prison system are a revelation; for many others, they are far too familiar. In “Prisons Are Microcosms Of The Broader Society” (Jacobin Magazine, April 16) historian Heather Ann Thompson reflects on what amounts to a watershed moment for many Americans. “The COVID-19 crisis is an unusual moment when the public, via the media, is allowed actually to see what the inside of prison looks like and how it operates.  It is ugly and inhumane, but not surprising to anyone who has been kept in those facilities or whose loved ones have spent time in them… Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has not just posed immediate ethical questions and medical questions, but it has raised powerful and deeper, frankly scratching-your-head questions about why we have a criminal justice system that looks like this in the first place.” Of course, these questions are not new. In her Will COVID-19 Produce Bail Reform? (The Crime Report, April 16) Emma Coleman quotes criminal justice advocate Zoë Towns on just this point. “The reforms people are calling for now are not novel ideas for this moment… What’s changed is a broader understanding from people outside the reform community as to just how urgent this is.” 

Previous articleMonday June 15, 2020
Next articleCOVID-19 in Prison: Week by Week — Part 5