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 May 3. 


WEEK 8 (May 3-9) 

On May 5, President Donald Trump toured a Honeywell International factory in Phoenix that manufactures N95 masks; Trump refused to wear a mask himself, later insisting that he had in fact worn one “backstage” until he was told it was not necessary. On May 7, coronavirus deaths in the United States topped 70,000. That same day, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine pledged to reopen the state’s hair salons, barber shops, day spas and nail salons by Friday, May 15. In the nation’s carceral facilities, there were 86 new COVID-19 related deaths among prisoners. Addressing reporters at the White House on May 8, Trump mused that the virus would eventually “disappear.” “There are some viruses or flus that came and they went for a vaccine, and they never found the vaccine… And they’ve disappeared. They never showed up again. They die, too, like everything else.” 

As the pandemic raged, conditions in federal immigrant detention facilities, many privately-run, grew worse. While most state and federal facilities had imposed a temporary freeze on inmate transfers as a public health precaution, ICE continued to move detainees, sometimes from infected facilities to non-infected ones. In ICE Moved Dozens Of Detainees Across The Country During The Coronavirus Pandemic. Now Many Have COVID-19 (BuzzFeed News, April 29), Hamed Aleaziz reports that in early April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials transferred 72 immigrant detainees via bus and plane from two jails in New York and Pennsylvania to a facility in Texas. The New York and Pennsylvania detention centers, Aleaziz points out, were “grappling with coronavirus outbreaks” at the time. Twenty-one of the transferred detainees tested positive for COVID-19 after reaching Prairieland Detention Facility in Alvarado, Texas. Aleaziz cites former ICE officials, mystified by the agency’s on-going logistical mis-steps. “ICE has long suffered from a lack of coordination and communication on the detention front,” remarks one anonymous former senior ICE official. “I think the fact that ICE continues on with regular interstate and facility transfers like this shows how little critical thinking is happening about both detainee, officer, and facility staff safety.” 

Alejandro Lazo and Zusha Elinson, in Inside The Largest Coronavirus Outbreak In Immigration Detention (The Wall Street Journal, April 30), note that out of the 29,675 immigrants detained by ICE nationwide, only 995 had been tested to date – less than 4%.  While limited, the testing did reveal that the privately-run Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego was an infection hot-spot, with 94 positive tests among detainees and 15 among staff. Operated by corrections and detention management firm CoreCivic, Otay Mesa remained dangerously slipshod in its pandemic protocols: Lazo and Elinson share the story of Sergio, a detainee who notified a nurse about a fever and chills and then waited “nearly 16 hours in his housing unit with 100 others” before he was eventually isolated. Conditions for women detainees at Otay Mesa were as deleterious. When center officials finally distributed masks on April 10, CoreCivic required that detainees sign a “liability waiver,” agreeing to hold CoreCivic “harmless” from all claims related to the mask’s use. At a CoreCivic detention center in Stewart, Georgia, a detainee protest demanding better food and sanitary conditions was met with overwhelming force by a heavily-armed Special Operations Response Team (SORT) firing pepper spray and pepper-ball guns. As José Olivares writes in Private ICE Jail Pepper Sprayed Detainees Protesting Coronavirus Care (The Intercept, May 5), one of the SORT officers later joked on social media that “the detainees were so hungry, they were ‘eating that spray.’” 

Faced with the threat of COVID-19, the nation’s carceral systems continued to reveal their innumerable flaws. John E. Wetzel, secretary of corrections for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and president of the Correctional Leaders Association, the national organization of state prison administrators, argues that the health crisis represents a rare opportunity for institutional reform and growth. In What We’ve Learned About Covid-19 In Prisons (RealClear Politics, May 3), Wetzel writes: “COVID-19 is a ‘pressure test’ for correctional systems. Like a garden hose on its first spring use, the system has cracks that leak under pressure. In corrections, the ‘cracks’ that frequently fail under pressure are overcrowding, understaffing, and a limited medical infrastructure.” Homespun and palpable, Wetzel’s metaphor has its obvious limits. The US criminal justice system is neither monolithic nor even centralized – it’s a knot of separate hoses, all leaking individually. As the ACLU’s Udi Ofer tells Alice Speri in Mass Incarceration Poses Uniquely American Coronavirus Risk (The Intercept, May 6), “It’s so hard to know what’s happening across the entire country. We don’t have one criminal justice system in the United States, we literally have thousands of criminal justice systems…. It’s so decentralized that every prison is its own universe.” 

As evidenced over the previous seven weeks of Crime Story summaries, whether issuing from the DOJ, the statehouse, or the local sheriff, the criminal justice systems’ COVID-19 related health protocols have been clumsily engineered and reluctantly implemented. Testing, especially, has been dangerously and purposefully under-utilized, no doubt with implicit support from a test-averse White House. Two federal facilities provide disheartening examples of this fundamental failure: FCI Elkton in Ohio and MDC Brooklyn. Almost a full month after U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr singled out Elkton in an April 3 memo for decarceration proceedings, and despite seven inmate deaths, the federal correctional facility had administered fewer than 80 tests, writes Marcia Brown in Ohio Federal Prison, Struggling To Contain Coronavirus, Loses Challenge To Stall Releases (The Appeal, May 5). This, even as Ohio launched a mass testing initiative of its own inmate population. As U.S. District Judge James Gwin wrote in his decision, “Why has the Justice Department allocated Elkton an entirely insignificant number of tests while Ohio has been able to pull off mass testing across not only Marion, but at multiple institutions?” 

The obvious and chilling answer comes from Dr. Homer Venters, former medical director for New York City’s jails. As reported by Nick Pinto in Federal Jail Destroying Medical Records Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Says Medical Expert (The Intercept, May 1), Venters’ court-mandated inspection of Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center was vigorously resisted by administrators. Nevertheless, on his tour Venters discovered that the notification system used by inmates to request medical care — the first step in reporting possible coronavirus symptoms — was “functionally broken,” with electronic requests going unanswered and paper requests being shredded by staff. “I view this refusal to track the incidence of COVID-19 symptoms among the patients in [MDC officials’] charge,” wrote Venters, “as especially egregious and intentionally designed to avoid knowing the extent of the outbreak and providing the necessary care.” 

In Stopping Covid-19 Behind Bars Was An Achievable Moral Imperative. We Failed (The Washington Post, May 1) opinion columnist Radley Balko attempts to identify the root cause of the carceral system’s ongoing failure. “This is what happens,” he writes, “when a bureaucracy built on punishment is tasked with compassion. It’s like asking the dishwasher to make coffee. That isn’t what it’s for.” Others would argue that there is more at work here than dysfunctionality or a design flaw. In Blame The Justice Department For Andrea Circle Bear’s Death (The New York Times, May 3), Holly Harris, Executive Director of Justice Action Network, excoriates the Bureau of Prisons for the untimely death of inmate Andrea Circle Bear and others like her. Eight and a half months pregnant and remanded to the Fort Worth federal women’s prison, Circle Bear died “more than three weeks after having an emergency C-section while on a ventilator, a victim of the coronavirus and a cruel justice system,” Harris laments. “We could have saved her life, and instead we sent her to the deadliest place on earth right now: an American prison.” 

Whether a sin of omission or commission, the US criminal justice system’s mismanagement of its COVID-19 response endangers inmates, staff and the rest of us. And it is the voices of these victims which ring out loudest. Listen to Arnold Hudson, Sr., a longtime correctional officer at the Washington, D.C. jail. In As Virus Spreads In Jails And Prisons, Correctional Officers Fear For Themselves And Their Loved Ones (The Washington Post, May 4) Hudson tells Keith L. Alexander and Dan Morse that both he and his wife fell ill in March; Hudson is certain that the jail is the virus reservoir and he is the vector. Months later, Hudson is still recuperating at home. “I’m just trying to keep my family safe and together since no one else, not the city, not the jail, no one is working to keep us safe,” he tells Alexander and Morse. “They all let us down.” Incarcerated Marshall Project contributor Timothy Bazrowx was similarly damning of the carceral system’s failures. As Maurice Chammah recalls in “We All Have An Expiration Date” :The Death of a Prison Writer (The Marshall Project, May 2), Bazrowx was a prolific memoirist and an inmate at the Texas state prison’s “Wynne Unit” in Huntsville. “We can’t get proper medical treatment even when there isn’t anything happening,” he wrote in March as the pandemic was beginning to spread, “and then when something big like this happens we are the last to get any type of help, for we are nobodies the convicted felons of life, the misfits, and most of the populace doesn’t even want us to live and make our way back out of here, and I am afraid that will be the gist of it when this hits the insides of prisons.” Bazrowx died of COVID-19 related causes on April 23 at the age of 63.