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 17.


WEEK 10 (May 17-23) 

On Monday, May 18, President Donald Trump announced that he had been taking daily doses of hydroxychloroquine for more than a week. In a CNN interview later that day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed concern about Trump’s use of the controversial coronavirus treatment: “He’s our President and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group, that is … morbidly obese, they say. So I think it’s not a good idea.” The state of California allowed churches to reopen at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever was fewer; the sharing of items such as prayer books or rugs was discouraged, as was group singing. On Friday, May 22, Brazil reported the second-highest count of infections worldwide at more than 330,000, surpassing Russia. The United States remained in the number one slot, with more than 1.6 million cases and almost 100,000 deaths. In Week 10, new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. carceral system dipped below 4,000 for the first time in over a month; there were 42 coronavirus-related deaths among inmates and detainees. 

More than eight weeks after California, New York and other states issued stay-at-home orders, federal, state and local authorities continued to thwart efforts to track, contain and assess the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons, jails and detention centers. From the Bureau of Prisons down to the local jail, many facility administrators appeared to be digging in, determined to conceal deteriorating conditions via obstruction, dubious statistics and tone-deaf announcements. MDC Brooklyn was back in the news, a case study in official obstinance. In Federal Jail Fights Release of Coronavirus Medical Requests (The Intercept, May 15) Nick Pinto continues his reporting on the ongoing public health crisis at Brooklyn’s federal lockup. Incarcerates there were seeking a preliminary injunction to force prison administrators to “meet prescribed standards of medical care to protect vulnerable people held inside from the coronavirus.” Government attorneys pushed back aggressively, arguing that inmate complaints and even a report to the court by former Chief Medical Officer for the New York City jails, Dr. Homer Venters, were of dubious veracity. Jails and prisons, Pinto observes, “are by their nature opaque, and MDC Brooklyn has a particular reputation for attempting to hide humanitarian crises unfolding inside its walls from public view.” The government’s arguments in court before Judge Rachel Kovner only reinforced that reputation. According to Pinto, Assistant US Attorney James Cho grilled Venters, questioning what evidence, other than inmate complaints, he had that the facility was slow to respond to medical requests. “You have no knowledge as to whether a health care provider is responsive to call requests, do you?” Cho insisted. “That is the crux of the failure,” Venters answered. “The system is set up to make that unknowable.” 

In We Have No Idea How Many People In Prison Actually Have COVID-19 (Slate, May 18) Mia Armstrong explores the carceral system’s purposeful “unknowability,” which she argues dates back to the 1970s and the beginning of mass incarceration. “The U.S. criminal justice system, by design,” she points out, “has long been a black box.” That black box, Armstrong and others suggest, restricts the outflow of information about COVID-19 within our carceral system, information critical to public health. She applauds ongoing efforts by “researchers, journalists and advocates” to counteract this embargo, “to gather, centralize and share data about the toll of COVID-19 behind bars.” Armstrong reserves special praise for the work of law professor Sharon Dolovich, whose UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project uses data-scraping and collaborative software to track and publicize COVID-19 statistics nationally.  Together with the Marshall Project’s indispensable COVID tracker project, cited regularly by this series, Dolovich’s spreadsheet provides near real-time evidence for understanding and confronting COVID’s deadly swath through jails and prisons. Unfortunately, far too often these voluntary databases are the sole source of information about the pandemic’s dire consequences. In the special report Across U.S., COVID-19 Takes A Hidden Toll Behind Bars (Reuters, May 18), Peter Eisler, Linda So, Ned Parker and Brad Heath detail how “scant testing and inconsistent reporting from state and local authorities have frustrated efforts to track or contain [the pandemic’s] spread, particularly in local jails.” The authors contend that the CDC’s May 6 report on COVID-19 infections in US correctional facilities may have under-reported infections by more than 200%. Regarding the CDC’s evident failure to accurately track the virus, Eisler et al. cite Aaron Littman, a UCLA Law School teaching fellow. “We don’t have a particularly good handle” on COVID infections, Littman tells them, “and in some places we have no handle at all.” 

Law enforcement’s adversarial posture is given a name and a face by Cindy Chang in L.A. County Sheriff Will Defy Subpoena From Oversight Commission To Testify About Jail Conditions (Los Angeles Times, May 20). Chang reports on L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s refusal to respond to a subpoena issued by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission requesting that he appear before them to answer questions about coronavirus in the County jails. Villanueva’s refusal to testify is his latest jurisdictional dust-up with the Commission; the Sheriff disputes the constitutionality of Measure R, which established the oversight body in March, 2020. Unfortunately, the Sheriff’s Department’s management of the pandemic in its jails has been overshadowed by this very public clash of wills. “If transparency is being provided, if the information is being provided, what exactly is the purpose of the subpoena?” Villanueva asked at a press briefing. “If they’re engaging in a public shaming endeavor, which it looks like at face value, well, they’re sadly mistaken. We’re not going to be participating in that.” In Los Angeles, we are being denied real-time information and accountability about COVID-19’s effect on the county’s incarcerated because of turf battles and institutional intransigence. 

Early release has eased the threat of COVID-19 in jails and prisons somewhat by reducing the inmate population and allowing for better social distancing measures in otherwise overcrowded facilities. In California’s Prisons And Jails Have Emptied Thousands Into A World Changed By Coronavirus (Los Angeles Times, May 17), Matt Hamilton, James Queally and Alene Tchekmedyian detail the practical difficulties faced by the recently excarcerated. “The exodus,” they note, “is having a profound and still-evolving effect: Those leaving custody enter a vastly different world in which a collapsed economy, scant job opportunities and the closure of many government offices have compounded the challenges of getting lives back on track.” They quote Jay Jordan, Executive Director of the non-profit criminal justice reform group, Californians For Safety and Justice, who acknowledges that “Seventy-five percent of people getting out of prison right now have no plan. Nowhere to go.” Stepping from behind bars in the midst of a pandemic can be bewildering. Sarah Stillman interviews Steven Berrier, released after serving thirty-five years, in Will The Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration? (The New Yorker, May 18). Left to fend for himself wearing only “a pair of prison jeans, a blue shirt, and sneakers a half-size too small,” Berrier sought the help of First 72+, a New Orleans organization that assists the excarcerated with reentry. He is matter-of-fact about his prospects. “Nobody’s hiring in this pandemic, and you can’t mingle or meet people, so I’m lost out here,” he tells Stillman. “I just want to earn an honest living, have a roof over my head – those aren’t wants, those are needs….” Recently excarcerated writer Euka Wadlington reflects on his own decades in lockup and the experience of sudden freedom in He Found Freedom After More Than Two Decades In Prison. But He Was Released Into A World Changed By COVID-19 (The Appeal, May 15). “It was definitely weird,” he tells The Appeal’s Roxanna Asgarian. “I’m actually enjoying this weirdness though.” Wadlington is forthright about his emotional rollercoaster ride post-release. “I came home open-armed, and everybody tried to help me,” he shares. “You know, listen, I’m supposed to be this hardcore criminal but I had tears in my eyes. I missed my daughter’s first heartbreaks, I missed my son’s basketball games and graduations and being there for my daughters when they were having their children. I missed that…. But I didn’t miss one of them getting married, I’m gonna be there for that. So it ain’t all about just what I missed, I gotta think about the things I still have a chance to do.” 

Today’s summary concludes with two pieces from the art world. Exclusive: Watch a Film About California’s Prison System by Sterling Ruby (AnOther, May 20), features a conversation between multidisciplinary artist Ruby Sterling and architecture critic and curator Mimi Zeiger about Sterling’s 2019 video projection, STATE. In STATE, aerial footage of California’s 35 correctional facilities offers a stark reminder of the unforgiving design of these complexes and their relative isolation within the California landscape. California’s prisons appear brutal and inhospitable when seen from on high, like gigantic concrete mazes. Sterling is vocal about the aggravating effect of COVID-19 on these forbidding structures. “Covid-19 is an amplifier — it’s directing a more urgent gaze on the nature of prison admissions, detainment, overcrowding and reintegration…. The buildings themselves are intrinsic to these conversations, logistically and allegorically.” In Artist Hank Willis Thomas Projected Writings By Prisoners Fearful Of Catching Coronavirus Onto Manhattan’s Criminal Justice Buildings (Artnet News, May 14), Sarah Cascone profiles the public art piece entitled, The Writing on the Wall.  A collaboration between Thomas and Baz Dreisinger, Executive Director of the think tank Incarcerated Nations Network, The Writing on the Wall “projected texts written by people in jail onto the facades of buildings tied to the criminal justice system in lower Manhattan.” One such site was the Tombs, the notorious municipal jail on White Street. “We were thinking about what public art could look like in the context of a pandemic,” Thomas explains, “and the idea of a projection seemed perfect: It’s visually arresting and impactful, even without being seen in person. It also allows the words and images to be front-and-center — it almost distills the installation to its critical content, the words themselves, which more than ever need to be read and heeded.”