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 26. 


WEEK 7 (APRIL 26 – MAY 2) 

On Tuesday, April 28, a bare-faced Vice President Mike Pence toured the Mayo Clinic, flouting that facility’s mask requirement. “Since I don’t have the coronavirus,” he explained, “I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you.’ ” The previous week saw a slight decline in COVID death and infection rates in the prison system: 87 prisoners and 6 prison staff died of COVID-19 related causes, and the number of new infections in the US carceral system dipped back below 5,000. On April 30, several hundred protesters opposed to pandemic safety measures, some heavily armed and many not wearing masks, stormed into the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, chanting “Let us in!” “Heil, Whitmer!” and “Lock her up!” Donald Trump was supportive of their message. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump tweeted on Friday, May 1. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” That same day, the US death toll hit 57,266. 

Virginia’s Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center was scrutinized again this week as a case study in the juvenile system’s sluggish response to the coronavirus. See COVID-19 in Prison: Week by Week — Part 6. As they had in Pennsylvania, Maryland and other states, Virginia’s judges rejected the wholescale release of qualified juvenile inmates, opting instead for an individualized approach. In Isolated And Scared: The Plight Of Juveniles Locked Up During The Coronavirus Pandemic (USA TODAY, April 27), Kristine Phillips sums up the the frustration of families and juvenile justice advocates across the country faced with the lethargic pace of decarceration. She quotes Renee Slajda, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights: “There’s no sense of urgency….We’re not against individualized decision-making. We’re just asking that no matter what the mechanisms are for sending kids home, that actions are taken quickly.”  

The New Jersey Department of Corrections also continued its foot dragging. In After A Slow Start, State Begins Furloughing Prisoners To Stem Spread Of COVID-19 (NJ Spotlight, April 28), Colleen O’Dea points out that despite Governor Phil Murphy’s April 10 executive order authorizing furloughs for inmates meeting certain criteria, it wasn’t until Monday, April 27 that 54 individuals were finally released and put on “emergency medical-home confinement.”  Reverend Amos Caley, an organizer with the group Salvation and Social Justice, observes: “It’s a masterpiece of a mishandled situation.” New Jersey’s DOC was also negligent in testing its inmate population for COVID-19. As Alice Speri writes in New Jersey Prisons: 29 Coronavirus Deaths, Only 184 Tests (The Intercept, April 28), “Only 184 inmates have been tested for Covid-19 across New Jersey — less than 1 percent of the state’s incarcerated population…. Because of the lack of testing, the official number of confirmed cases — 145 — is inevitably an enormous undercount.” Boris Franklin, an organizer with the faith-based New Jersey Together Coalition, assured Speri that there is a method behind the madness. “If you don’t test,” he suggests, “you don’t report, and then you don’t have to act.”

Week 7 saw renewed attention to the overwhelming power of local authorities to control incarceration rates by determining who is detained and why. In his comprehensive survey of the Texas carceral system, As COVID-19 Hits Jails And Prisons, Texas Inmates Call For Action (Dallas Observer, April 28), Tyler Hicks notes that across the state, local law enforcement continued to jail individuals for low-level offenses despite the potential risk to their health. He speaks with Pam Metzger, Director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University, who tells Hicks about a Montgomery County man, arrested for “failing to provide his name after a car accident,” who then spent eight days in county jail as a result. “All of the national media is focused on the national centers like Rikers Island,” she tells Hicks, “but the truth is, most people are going to be incarcerated in local jails. By and large, the people we arrest are poor, they have limited access to healthcare, they have preexisting conditions and they are crammed into facilities that are built to hold people for a short period of time. Jails are not meant to test or treat people.” Via low-level arrests and detentions, Texas counties continue to add to this at-risk population, multiplying the number of what one criminal justice advocate terms “jail victims.” 

At the federal, state and local levels, decarceration efforts continued to be dangerously lax. Coupled with inconsistent public health measures and spotty testing, the plight of our nation’s incarcerated remained both dire and unconscionable. In Quarantine Could Change How Americans Think Of Incarceration, (The Atlantic, April 28) Hannah Giorgis sets about unpacking the “weighty ethical questions about how the penal system treats those behind bars.” Finally figuring into this calculus are the more than 60 percent of jail inmates who are jailed pretrial, many there because of unpaid fines or technical violations related to their parole or probation. In the context of the raging pandemic, the treatment of this cohort demands attention. “Does anyone deserve to die because they failed to report to their parole officer,” Giorgis asks, “or were unable to pay a $500 bond? Does any crime justify a potentially painful, gasping death?” 

C.J. Ciaramella cites coronavirus infection cluster data from the New York Times in 8 Of The Top 10 Biggest U.S. Coronavirus Hotspots Are Prisons and Jails (Reason, April 29), pointing out that “The only two hotspots on the top 10 list that aren’t prisons or jails are a pork processing plant in South Dakota and the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.” (As of June 29, this remains the case: Nine out of the current top ten US COVID-19 clusters are carceral facilities.) In Medical Journal Calls For The Release Of At-Risk Prison, Jail Populations (The Crime Report, April 29), TCR Staff note that the nation’s leading medical journal, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), was finally recognizing this public health catastrophe. JAMA had called on authorities to “reduce ‘unnecessary’ jail admissions and expedite the release of prisoners serving time for nonviolent crimes or technical violations as well as those with underlying medical conditions.” Until such remedies are implemented, our prisons and jails remain some of the most lethal locales in the country.  As Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility inmate Patrick Wilson tells Tom Perkins in Positive Test Rates For COVID-19 Are As High As 87% At Some Michigan Prisons (HuffPost, April 29), “The mass decarceration that we’re going to see is prisoners in body bags.”

Writing for WBEZ and the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, Shannon Heffernan interviews correctional staff and inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail in Inside The Jail With One Of The Country’s Largest Coronavirus Outbreaks (April 30). What she uncovers is a shared sense of fear and vulnerability; both groups are dangerously ill-informed and ill-equipped, conditions which see them inching towards mutual recognition. Correctional Officer “A” grouses about administrators dodging responsibility and blaming correction officers  for the lack of personal protective equipment. “At one point PPE equipment was available. But it was locked up in an administrator’s office, and we’re getting yelled at by supervisors. ‘Why don’t we have it?’ ‘Well, I don’t have access to his office. Why are you yelling at me?’ And then it still took an additional two days to pass it out. Some of the equipment was so old, the bands were rotted.” Later, Officer “A” hits on a useful motto for the many players trapped in the carceral system’s patchwork COVID response. “Every decision I make… comes down to one thing: What is going to screw us the least?” he tells Heffernan. “Because we’re all getting screwed. Like no matter what we do, we’re going to get screwed somehow.”