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 11 (MAY 24-MAY 30)
The New York Times commemorated Memorial Day by devoting the entire front page of its Sunday, May 24 edition to a list of the almost 100,000 Americans dead due to COVID-19. The headline read: “An Incalculable Loss.” The nation’s prisons reported over 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 during the previous week, with some 40 virus-related deaths. The three-day holiday weekend saw overflow crowds at beaches, parks and boardwalks, many in violation of standing public health orders. “Disney is closed, Universal is closed. Everything is closed,” observed Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Florida’s Volusia County, which encompasses Daytona Beach. “So where did everybody come with the first warm day with 50% opening? Everybody came to the beach.” A maskless President Donald Trump golfed at his Sterling, Virginia course on both Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Memorial Day, bystander videos of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis went viral, triggering an unprecedented wave of protests across the nation. Summer 2020 had arrived.
This week, jails, prisons and detention centers once again dominated the New York Times weekly “top ten” list of COVID-19 outbreaks. In response to inquiries by family, the press and public defense advocates about the sluggish implementation of early release policies, carceral administrators at all levels continued to stonewall. What’s more, they began to push back in the courts. In New York Appealed To Keep An Elderly Prisoner Behind Bars – Then He Got Coronavirus (The Intercept, May 27), Natasha Lennard profiles the case of Jalil Muntaqim, a 68-year old former Black Panther serving a 25-to-life sentence at New York State’s Sullivan Correctional Facility and eligible for parole. In early April, as the threat of COVID-19 loomed, the Legal Aid Society filed a petition for Muntaqim’s release, noting his high risk status due to his age, race and compromised health. Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick ordered Muntaqim’s release, making his case the “first writ of habeas corpus in the coronavirus era to be granted by a New York court.” The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions, represented by state Attorney General Letitia James, appealed and that decision was stayed. As feared, stuck behind bars, Muntaqim soon contracted COVID-19. Lennard does not mince words indicting New York State’s deliberate interference. “The government’s decision to actively pursue an appeal in Muntaqim’s case,” she writes, “to spend resources and time to halt the release of a man who has been incarcerated since he was 19 years old, who could be released safely into a welcoming community committed to his care — is the most vile betrayal of justice in favor of a carceral ideology.” She is clear about the state’s intentions: “The state is no doubt nervous of seeing case law established that holds prison conditions to be possible constitutional violations, for which the only remedy is a person’s release.”
In Trump Administration Asks Supreme Court To Stop Release Of Inmates At Risk For COVID-19 (Los Angeles Times, May 23), David G. Savage reports on the SCOTUS case Williams v. Wilson, a Government attempt to deflect judicial intervention into carceral conditions. Solicitor General Noel Francisco sought to stay, pending appeal, an order by US District Judge James S. Gwin instructing officials at the Bureau of Prisons to accelerate the evaluation of elderly and high-risk prisoners for transfer out of the troubled BoP facility at Elkton, Ohio. The Solicitor General, Savage writes, “argued that the judge had overstepped his authority and evaded the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which bars inmates from challenging prison conditions in federal court until they have tried to obtain relief through the prison grievance system.” Francisco sidestepped the difficulties of navigating that grievance system during the current pandemic, even as he used the public health crisis as an excuse for current BoP policy. He argued that Gwin’s order “fails to account for the practical constraints facing prison administrators managing the nation’s prison system during a public health emergency, and ignores the actual and extensive steps that they have taken to protect inmates from the risk of infection within those constraints.” This, despite the fact that FCI Elkton had suffered nine COVID-19 related deaths by early May. Savage notes that SCOTUS had recently turned down a similar appeal from two elderly Texas state prison inmates, prompting Justice Sonia Sotomayor (joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) to issue a statement concerning the judiciary’s responsibility to protect incarcerates. “It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons,” Sotomayor wrote. “May we hope that our country’s facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales.”
Sadly, Sotomayor’s “hope” may be misplaced. From halfway house health protocols to releasing paroled prisoners, the “carceral ideology” stubbornly defended its interests and actions — even if it had to tie itself in knots to achieve its ends. In Coronavirus Cases in Halfway Houses Are Undercounted (The Intercept, May 28), Liliana Segura examines the perplexing case of excarcerate James Stile, who had to been released to live with his aunt until he was suddenly ordered to an Albany, NY federal halfway house, despite two recent cases of coronavirus there. Stile was in the unenviable position of having to petition to be jailed in order to protect his health. A self-confessed “legal beagle,” Stile “sought expedited review for a writ of habeas corpus on the basis that his life was at risk, to no avail.” He capped a string of lawsuits and grievances with a three-week long hunger strike. “You need to do something soon,” he begged the BoP. “Put me in the SHU [Secure Housing Unit or solitary], home confinement, or wherever, but safe from this coronavirus which is the core of the problem here. It is not safe.” Segura relates that when US Marshals ultimately appeared at Stile’s halfway house to transport him to Rensselaer County Jail, he exclaimed, “Great. You made my day.”
Stile tasted life beyond bars, however briefly. In many states, incarcerates approved for release or granted parole by their state parole boards languish in custody because they have yet to complete mandatory drug and alcohol treatment and other reentry programs — programs currently unavailable due to the pandemic. In When Parole Doesn’t Mean Release: The Senseless “Program Requirements” Keeping People Behind Bars During A Pandemic (Prison Policy, May 21), Emily Widra and Wendy Sawyer focus on this issue as it plays out in Tennessee, where they report, “over 1,000 people…have been approved for parole but are waiting to participate in the mandated programming…. That means Tennessee could reduce its prison population by almost 4% by releasing just those who have already been approved for parole.” Widra and Sawyer suggest a solution to the logjam: “Parole boards can waive the requirement or offer the therapeutic community programming after release.” Texas prison administrators were reluctant to untangle a similar, even larger, procedural knot in their state. Lauren McGaughy, in Ten Thousand Texas Prisoners Approved For Parole Sit Behind Bars Amid Coronavirus Pandemic (The Dallas Morning News, May 28), notes that at the end of April, “14,860 [Texas] inmates had been granted parole… About 3 in 4 were told they must first finish drug treatment or reentry classes behind bars.” She cites a letter from excarcerate Orlando Vences, who criticizes Texas’ required six-month substance abuse course: “After years of being in the system I was finally granted parole…. Why can’t we be released and take this [course] in the free world? Because from the look of things… eventually things are going to hit the fan.”
The terrible death of pregnant Andrea Circle Bear in BoP custody is yet another tragic example of the carceral system’s mismanagement and inflexibility. In a heart-wrenching opinion piece entitled The Federal Bureau Of Prisons Must Be Held Accountable For The Death Of My Granddaughter (The Washington Post, May 22), Clara LeBeau details the cruel dysfunction behind her granddaughter Andrea’s death. “What functioning system would wait months to take a pregnant woman and put her on a long airplane ride to a medical facility in the middle of a pandemic?” she asks. “That kind of decision happens because of layers and layers of bad rules and policies. And all those layers are stuck together with a lack of simple human decency.”
In Week 11, “simple human decency” seemed absent in many sectors of the carceral system. In ICE Detainee Who Died Of Covid-19 Suffered Horrifying Neglect (The Intercept, May 24), Ryan Devereaux recounts the final days of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, detained at ICE’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, operated by for-profit corrections giant CoreCivic. Escobar Mejia suffered from a host of underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart problems; with a partially amputated right foot, he used a wheelchair and depended on the assistance of fellow detainees. Desperately ill and unable to leave his room, Mejia pleaded with detention center officials to see a doctor. “[Otay Mesa] officers were aware, fully aware, that he was not feeling well,” observes Joan Del Valle, Escobar Mejia’s former attorney. When center staff finally responded, Devereaux points out, “Escobar Mejia could barely speak.” Despite his condition, “rather than being taken to a hospital, Escobar Mejia was moved to a pod for detainees suspected of having Covid-19.” Denied immediate medical care, Escobar Mejia’s condition further deteriorated until he was ultimately transferred to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California. Twelve days later, he was dead. Questioned about Mejia’s death and Otay Mesa’s public health protocols, CoreCivic director of public affairs, Amanda Gilchrist, offered the standard blandishments: “Even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities,” she writes, “we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners. We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities” — thin and oft-repeated justification for “layers and layers of bad rules and policies.”
In One’s An Inmate, And One’s a Guard. Coronavirus Binds Their Loved Ones – In Protest Against The State (The Washington Post, May 22), Isaac Stanley-Becker highlights the unusual collaboration between Jessica Blevins, wife of a corrections officer at Tennessee’s Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, and Vicky Scoggins, whose boyfriend is incarcerated there. Coronavirus infections spiked in both the correctional facility and surrounding community, and the two women joined a protest at the state capitol to demand better testing and health precautions for officers and inmates alike. “These communities, ordinarily opposed, are now participating in the same struggle,” observes Christopher J. Hale, Democratic congressional candidate for Bledsoe County. Blevins explains why: “It’s not whether you’re an inmate’s spouse or an officer’s spouse,” she explains. “It’s about lives being in danger.”