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 10.
WEEK 9 (May 10-16)
On May 11, Georgia State Attorney General Chris Carr appointed Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes to lead the prosecution of Gregory and Travis McMichael, the father and son recorded fatally shooting 25 year old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in February in a suburban Atlanta neighborhood. Holmes is the fourth prosecutor to handle the matter — a red flag signaling concern about the cases’s potential to expose systemic racism in Georgia law enforcement. On Wednesday, May 13, Los Angeles County beaches reopened with restrictions: swimming, surfing, running, walking and other “active recreation” would be allowed, but chairs, canopies, coolers or grills were banned. In a 4-3 decision on May 13, the conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Governor Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order extension; Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes tweeted his reaction as “Disappointed but not surprised. They put lives at risk by forcing an election, of course they were going to double down. It’s like no lives matter. This is bad.” The nation’s jails, prisons and detention facilities recorded over 5000 new coronavirus infections, with 69 inmate deaths.
Essence magazine, celebrating 50 years in print this year, honored Mother’s Day with a fierce opinion piece by Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of the criminal justice reform advocacy group, Worth Rises. In As We Struggle To Stay Connected, Prison Calls Must Be Free (May 10), Tylek condemns the prison telecom system, a $1.3 billion industry dominated by just three corporations: Securus, GTL and ICSolutions. With in-person visits suspended and most carceral facilities lacking the infrastructure to support inmate emails, families are often forced to spend as much as $25 for a 15-minute phone call with their incarcerated loved ones. These extortionate rates, Tylek argues, “force families…to triage their everyday crises — when a mother learns she has a cancer, a wife gets into a car accident, or a son is struggling with homework — deciding which they can afford to share and which they cannot.” Praising the Federal Bureau of Prisons, New York City and San Francisco for making jail phone calls free, Tylek urges other agencies, cities and states to do the same. “The COVID-19 outbreak has reminded us all of the importance of communication,” Tylek concludes. “[It’s] an opportunity to correct a decades-old wrong and ensure that, now and forever, families won’t have to worry about whether they can afford to tell their loved ones behind bars that they’re still alive.”
As COVID-19’s siege of our jails, prisons and detention centers ground on into its third month, details about dire conditions within those facilities continued to emerge. “Normal” prison life took on a new, grim aspect under the pandemic’s threat. In Locked In A Crowded TV Room: Pandemic Revelations From A Federal Prison (Filter, May 11), Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard breaks down the physical strictures of incarcerated life into claustrophobic square feet. When staff at the federal prison FCI Butner in North Carolina began moving inmates in order to implement “social distancing,” it crowded 10 “overflow” prisoners into what was once the TV room for at least five days. “There,” writes Blanchard, “social distancing was impossible. The TV room measured around 41 feet by 27 feet, roughly 1,100 square feet,” well below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for pandemic-appropriate spacing. “The way staff moved us around and housed us on top of each other caused the [COVID-19] outbreak,” Butner prisoner Theron Thompson tells Blanchard in an email. After multiple inmates tested positive after the move, Butner administrators shirked responsibility. “The staff here keeps attempting to shift the blame on the inmates,” Thompson explains. “The medical staff has took the defensive as to saying that we were not disclosing our symptoms and taking aspirin to evade the temperature checks. At that time i [sic] became irate and stated me and others complained and informed staff that we were experiencing symptoms and nothing was done.” Nutrition under lockdown is also a major issue. Hot meals, like regular showers, are on indefinite hold; in their stead, food is delivered in paper bags to the inmates, usually at unpredictable hours. In Ewwwww, What Is That? (The Marshall Project, May 11), Keri Blakinger, a former incarcerate herself, writes with her usual empathy about the suspect contents of the notorious “johnny sacks.” “[Inmates’] food now arrives at odd hours in paper bags, cold, mushy and without a hint of green (except perhaps for some iffy-looking hot dogs). Mostly it’s stale white bread and mystery meat, with the occasional helping of raisins or prunes.” Viewing photographs of recent offerings at a Texas state prison, one former prison official confirmed that nothing has really changed when it comes to prison meals. “They’ve always been subpar,” the ex-official reminded Blakinger. “They’re shitty.” Blakinger argues that the unhealthful quality of Texas prison food dates back to 2011, “when officials tried to make up a budget shortage by chopping $2.8 million out of the allotment for meals.” Gone were fresh milk, hot dog buns and even the expected “three squares” a day. “We will not die by COVID19 [sic] but we die by hunger!!” wrote one inmate. “TRUTH!”
The shocking death of Tiffany Mofield at New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women offers another terrible example of a carceral system in distress. As Alice Speri reports in Woman Dies Of Covid-19 In Solitary Confinement in N.J. Prison (The Intercept, May 11), after spending two weeks in an infirmary with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the 43-year old Mofield was then quarantined alone in a locked shower room (which a fellow inmate described as a “converted mop closet”). Mofield died in cramped solitary confinement, after begging repeatedly to be let out because she couldn’t breathe. Michelle Angelina, a fellow incarcerate, is explicit about the root causes of Mofield’s terrible suffering. “It is the daily flaws in how the facility is operated from an administrative position that caused the circumstances that led to Ms. Mofield’s death, not the officers’ fault,” she tells Speri. “Inmates should not be locked in showers, should not be handcuffed to go to and from the shower, and should not be left to wait with no assistance in hearing range in a locked shower, begging for help because they can’t breathe.” As noted in previous Crime Story weekly summaries, cracks were showing in the nation’s juvenile detention facilities as well. In Solitary, Brawls, No Teachers: Coronavirus Makes Juvenile Jails Look Like Adult Prisons (The Marshall Project, May 12) Eli Hager quotes an anonymous therapist at a Maryland youth facility on the grinding ennui there, as youths try to play cards as a crackling public health announcement loops over the loudspeaker. “The boredom and nothingness of it is sinking in,” the therapist observes. “They’re just waiting on their lives.” Jenny Egan, Chief Attorney of the Juvenile Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, argues that this is business as usual, only writ large now. “There was only a thin veneer of rehabilitation all along,” she observes, “and COVID has made that abundantly clear.”
Federal, state and corporate officialdom sandbagged, often in identically phrased bureaucratese. In COVID-19 Cases At One Texas Immigration Detention Center Soared In A Matter Of Days. Now, Town Leaders Want Answers (May 11), part of ProPublica’s invaluable co-publishing effort with the nonprofit Texas Tribune, Perla Trevizo writes that the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, run by corrections giant, The GEO Group, was rapidly becoming an infection hot-spot. Even as anxiety ratcheted up among Pearsall’s detainees, GEO Group CEO George Zoley sought to placate investors. In an April earnings release, Zoley spun gold out of dross, vowing “that his company has worked to procure safety supplies, do temperature checks and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and that all of its facilities have ‘access to regular handwashing with clean water and soap, round-the-clock healthcare, and typically have approximately double the number of healthcare staff, compared to state correctional facilities.’” This, against all evidence to the contrary. In Investigation: How The Coronavirus Ran Rampant Through A Tennessee Prison (Nashville Public Radio News, May 11), Samantha Max profiles Dr. Emma Rich, a prison physician who engaged in a one-woman work stoppage over health conditions at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. Bledsoe’s medical operations are run by private healthcare provider Centurion; Centurion dismissed Rich’s proposals for COVID-related emergency measures with Orwellian double-speak. “We follow the most up-to-date and evolving guidance of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and public health officials for personal protective equipment (PPE),” a Centurion spokesperson wrote in an email, “and adjust our policies as new information becomes available.” Zoley and his peers have perfected the art of making empty promises sound like statements of fact.
In Week 9, COVID-19 continues to sicken and kill both prisoners and staff and to lay bare our carceral system’s deficiencies and indignities. Cristine Soto DeBerry, Chief of Staff for San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, is eloquent about the fundamental reassessment the COVID-19 crisis requires of us. In Jails and Prisons Must Reduce Their Populations Now (The Appeal, May 12), she writes: “Mass incarceration has long threatened our national well-being. Now, coupled with a deadly contagious virus, it is a threat to every individual. After decades of ignoring our ballooning incarceration rates, we created a crisis within a crisis. Conditions we never should have tolerated in the United States are now demanding repair if anyone is to be safe.” Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal study, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, drills down into our carceral system’s urgent need for repair. In her opinion piece, Let Our People Go (New York Times, May 13), Alexander writes: “We now face a choice regarding what kind of country we want to be in the months and years to come. Rather than imagining that the lives of those locked in cages are less valuable than our own, perhaps we ought to get down on our knees and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”