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 19.
WEEK 6 (April 19-25)
On Monday, April 20, COVID-19 related deaths nationwide totaled 41,575. During the day’s White House pandemic briefing, President Donald Trump cast about for silver linings. “One is too many. I always say it: One is too many…. But we’re going toward 50 or 60,000 people. That’s at the lower — as you know, the low number was supposed to be 100,000 people.” On Tuesday, April 21, the Department of Homeland Security placed a $5.1 million order for 100,000 body bags or “human remains pouches” from E.M. Oil Transport, Inc. “I hope to God that they don’t need my order and that they cancel it,” the company’s marketing manager, Mike Pryor, told NBC News. At Thursday’s White House briefing, Trump spitballed alternative cures for the coronavirus, wondering whether disinfectant might be used internally to kill the virus: “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.” In the nation’s carceral system, the coming week would see almost 6,900 new infections and 87 prisoner deaths.
As our state and federal carceral systems continued their glacially-slow response to the pandemic, the term “Kafkaesque” took on a new relevance. In Kafka’s The Trial, Josef K. is trapped in a criminal justice bureaucracy which is both opaque and arbitrary; “Kafkaesque” has become shorthand for the sprawling obtuseness of human systems. The adjective was wielded with brutal efficiency by U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan in her April 19 decision regarding the travails of defendant Gerard Scparta, who was promised but denied early release. As Josh Gerstein notes in his Politico story, Judge Rips Feds Over Prison Quarantine Policies (April 20), Nathan “excoriated federal [Bureau of Prisons] officials over their practice of putting inmates considered or approved for early release into a pre-release quarantine before they are sent home. The period typically lasts 14 days, but the judge noted that it can be extended, potentially repeatedly, if another inmate in the same group tests positive for the virus.” Nathan noted that Scparta’s 14 day pre-release quarantine (endured in the company of other inmates) might run on indefinitely, putting the lie to terms “14 days,” “pre-release” and “quarantine.” She denounced this train wreck of a policy as “illogical” and “Kafkaesque.”
Week 6 saw countless instances of “Kafkaesque” state and federal prison COVID-19 policies which were self-contradictory and implemented only half-heartedly. New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex remained emblematic of a carceral system tangled in its own incompetence. In “Everyone’s Coughing, Everyone’s Agitated” (Slate, April 20), Julia Craven quotes Rikers inmate “D” as he puzzles over the conflicting protocols and broken promises endangering inmates there: “When you call the number for medical to complain about your issues,” D tells Craven, “you can’t even get through to a number. I tried it for the last two days. It does not work. I don’t know if it’s not set up, or if it’s set up but we don’t get through to nobody. It don’t even give you a busy. It just clicks off.” In Rikers in Crisis: Inside the Virus-Stricken New York Jail (The Intercept, April 21), Alleen Brown profiles Jose Diaz, a 33-year old with a Master’s degree from NYU in social and cultural analysis; Diaz was picked up for a parole violation on March 2, the day after Governor Andrew Cuomo issued the state’s stay-at-home order. In a cell at Rikers and troubled by a sore throat, Diaz followed procedure, put his name on a list for medical care and awaited the next day’s “sick call.” But the call never came: “When Diaz asked a corrections officer for help,” Brown writes, “he learned that sick call had been cancelled due to the virus.” Diaz is impatient with the unctuous tone of most official responses to COVID-19. “They need to stop taking praise and applause for not doing a job complete,” he argues. “Release half the population and make sure the people who are there get adequate access to resources.”
Institutional double-speak echoed throughout the carceral system. In State Prison Virus Cases Mounting As Outside Figures Plateau (The City, April 19), Rosa Goldensohn, Ann Choi and Reuven Blau report on conditions at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s only maximum-security prison for women — and the only one with a live-in nursery for pre- and post-natal inmates. According to New York Assemblymember Daniel Weprin, chair of the Assembly Committee of Correction, women at Bedford Hills “say those with symptoms are being housed on top of each other in a so-called isolation area — and then released back into the general population after two weeks without any testing.” Lyra Walsh Fuchs, in The Pandemic Inside The Only Women’s Maximum-Security Prison In New York (Dissent, April 20) interviews Bedford Hills inmates who describe the same procedural snafus that plague carceral facilities nationwide. Former Bedford inmate Julie Werkheiser, whose wife is still incarcerated there, tells Fuchs that each inmate received a single disposable mask. “We get yelled at for not wearing it and can’t come out of our cell without it,” Werkheiser informs her. “The only other option they have given us is to wear the handkerchiefs issued by the state shop around our faces. However, they don’t fit around our heads and the bigger issue is that we can’t even get those because… the state shop is CLOSED!”
From infinite two-week quarantines to help-lines that ring unanswered, the US carceral system has made clear that its priorities do not lie with the incarcerated. Karina Piser, in The Devastating Emotional Toll Of Suspending Prison Visits (The Nation, April 20), examines the daily cruelties of our prisons and jails during COVID-19, starting with restrictions on communication with loved ones and attorneys. “Reform advocates say that prisons and jails could do more to keep families informed,” Piser writes, “particularly while in-person visits are suspended… Even under normal circumstances, inmates’ relatives often have to fight to get basic information.” She quotes Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a criminal justice reform advocacy group, on the wall of silence which greets most families’ entreaties for news about their incarcerated loved ones: “The prisons don’t respond, or you’re on hold for hours… It’s brutal. These places are black holes.” Or, as Ebony Underwood, whose father has been imprisoned for 31 years, confides, “This new normal is the abnormal I’ve experienced my whole life.”
Justin Jouvenal extends this critique to youth detention facilities in ‘Mom, I Just Don’t Know How To Stay Well’: Inside The Nation’s Worst Known Outbreak Of Coronavirus At A Youth Prison (The Washington Post, April 23). Youth correctional facilities bear an added burden of care because of the underage status of most of their charges. Despite this, Jouvenal finds that several youth prisons in the D.C. area, including Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Virginia, had “stopped visitors, suspended schooling, ended counseling and locked at least some teens in their cells 23 hours a day to stem the outbreak.” There were reports that parents were not informed of their children’s positive test results, nor of resulting hospitalizations. Rather than reaching out to anxious parents and guardians, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) “went radio silent on the whole thing,” said Valerie Slater, Executive Director of the juvenile justice advocacy group Rise for Youth. DJJ Director Valerie Boykin announced in a news release that, per Jouvenal, the facility “had not released the number of cases sooner because of concern for the underage offenders’ privacy, but the DJJ’s thinking had evolved on the issue along with other juvenile justice agencies across the country.” Boykin’s response was neither reassuring nor inspiring. According to James Queally, in Despite Probation Approval, L.A. Blocks Release Of At-Risk Juvenile Offenders (Los Angeles Times, April 20), judges in LA’s juvenile justice system “were rejecting numerous pleas for the early release of youths during the pandemic, even in cases supported by the LA County Probation Department.” It’s hard to find evidence of Boykin’s proclaimed evolution of thinking here.
By Week 6, temporizing had become an institutional coping mechanism. From the federal Bureau of Prisons to many state Departments of Corrections, promises regarding early or compassionate release and robust coronavirus preventative measures were being slow-walked forward — cover for business as usual. In New Jersey Announced A Coronavirus Prison Release Plan. Two Weeks Later, Not One Inmate Has Been Let Out (The Inquirer, April 23), Pranshu Verma and Jeremy Roebuck argue that despite 16 COVID-19 related inmate deaths and passionate declarations from Trenton, Governor Phil Murphy had failed to release even one of the “1,100 New Jersey prisoners who could qualify for release.” New Jersey corrections officials offered precious few explanations for their inactivity; leave it to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to supply a bureaucratic justification for their sister-state’s foot-dragging. “It takes considerable staff time to verify and then approve someone for a governor’s reprieve,” explained Maria Finn, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DOC. “We believe the process is well worth the effort.” Finn’s department was hardly a model of speed or efficiency, however — as of April 23, Pennsylvania had only released 112 of 1,500 to 1,800 eligible inmates.
And that is exactly the point, argues Cornell University Professor of Law Joseph Margulies in Let The People Go (Boston Review, April 20). Yes, states are releasing inmates, but at numbers which belie the seriousness of the public health crisis. Working off a laundry list of “carve-outs” (“anyone at risk based upon age, is pregnant, has an autoimmune disorder or suffers from a ‘serious chronic medical condition’ such as diabetes or heart disease”) states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been able to pay lip-service to the call for early release while excarcerating a statistically insignificant number of inmates. Margulies demonstrates that this is a national trend. “In Georgia, for instance, the Board of Pardons and Paroles will consider releasing ‘individuals currently serving for a non-violent offense(s) who are within 180 days of completing their prison sentence.’ The state estimates this may lead to the release of up to 200 inmates. Georgia incarcerates roughly 50,000 people, which means its response to the COVID crisis will reduce the prison population by less than half of one percent. New York has said it will release about 1,100 ‘low-level technical parole violators,’ many of whom are held in county jails. As of April 1, 2020, New York had a prison population of nearly 43,000 inmates, meaning its response will reduce the incarcerated population by about three percent.”
Franz Kafka observed in The Trial that “The proceedings gradually merge into the judgment.” During Week 6 of the COVID crisis in our jails, prisons and detention facilities, the proceedings were cynical and sluggish and the judgment, abundantly clear.