Sean Smith presents Part 12 of his week by week analysis of the news stories aggregated in Crime Story Daily related to COVID-19 and our carceral system.

You can find links to each of Sean’s analysis pieces here. This article covers the week beginning May 31.

WEEK 12 (MAY 31- JUNE 6) 

On Sunday, May 31, as mass protests continued nationally against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, 41 cities, including Washington, D.C., imposed overnight curfews; many were extended through mid-week. Monday evening, police and National Guard units cleared demonstrators from D.C.’s Lafayette Square with flash-bang explosions and tear gas in order for President Donald Trump to stage a photo op in front of the so-called “Church of the Presidents,” St. John’s. As Trump posed awkwardly holding a Bible in front of the boarded-up church, a reporter asked him, “Is that your Bible?” “It’s a Bible,” Trump replied. In US jails, prisons and detention centers, over 6000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported during the previous week; there were 42 virus-related deaths. On Thursday in Houston, at the memorial service for George Floyd, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton eulogized the murdered man. “Get your rest, George,” he offered. “You changed the world.” 

Across the US, local law enforcement’s aggressive, often heavily-militarized response to the largely peaceful protests underscored the fraught nature of the police/public interface. “In the worst of ironies, outrage at the system has, at least for now, made the system more terrifying than ever,” observes Hugh Eakin in After George Floyd, A Nation In Search Of Justice (New York Review of Books, May 29). “Across social media, peaceful protests have expressed unease that the police are no longer there to protect them,” he continued, “that – as much as the black community has sensed for years – the police are menacing, heavily armed antagonists.” Multiple instances from demonstrations across the nation bear this out. In LAPD Tactics Get More Aggressive As Arrests Soar (Los Angeles Times, June 3), James Queally, Kevin Rector, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Richard Winton report on LAPD’s “startling, militaristic shows of force” city-wide. One incident on Hollywood Boulevard stands out as emblematic. As officers, guns drawn, handcuffed a person who had been filming looters, an LAPD commander could be heard over the radio urging indiscriminate action: “Units on Hollywood Boulevard, you should not be driving past anyone. Stop where you are and take someone into custody.” 

To many held in the carceral system, the martial demeanor of street cops and the priority of property rights over constitutional rights were but iterations of the status quo behind bars. In In Prison, Even Social Distancing Rules Get Weaponized (The Marshall Project, May 28), incarcerated journalist Christopher Blackwell describes the fundamental arbitrariness of incarceration. “After close to 22 years inside, I thought I had seen everything when it comes to the Department of Corrections using impossible-to-follow rules to punish prisoners. The DOC only needs to say that the safety and security of their facility is at risk, and they can enforce any new rule in any way they want.” The carceral system, Blackwell argues, maintains its advantage by perpetually seeking to “weaponize the impossible against [inmates].” 

Once identified, that weaponization is in evidence everywhere one looks. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and resulting protests, on June 1 the federal Bureau of Prisons instituted its first nationwide lockdown in 25 years. In Federal Bureau Of Prisons Locks Down Prisoners And Takes Away Communications Amid Protest (The Appeal, June 3), Lauren Gill quotes a BOP spokesperson who explains, “In light of extensive protest activity occurring around the country, the BOP… is implementing an additional, temporary security measure to ensure the good order and security of our institutions, as well as ensure the safety of staff and inmates.” The order of the BOP’s concerns, ranging from institutional security and ending with inmate safety, speaks to Blackwell’s point. The BOP lockdown requires the confiscation of televisions and phones and the suspension of video visitation; on top of the “modified lockdown” already in place due to the pandemic, living conditions in BOP facilities are increasingly onerous. Amy Povah, an excarcerate and founder of CAN-DO Clemency, a prisoner advocacy organization, is clear about the negative consequences of these draconian restrictions. “You’re kind of confirming why we’re in the situation we’re in as a country,” she suggests about BOP policy, “where the rage has erupted because people are sick of the oppression, particularly against minorities. If the cops were so comfortable with the actions they were taking against George Floyd with someone filming so closely, just imagine what goes on inside prisons.” That these same restrictions have a deleterious effect on staff as well as inmates is borne out in Samantha Michaels’ Arkansas Told Corrections Officers To Keep Working Even If They’re Infected With COVID-19 (Mother Jones, June 2). Michaels reports that, faced with chronic staff shortages, the Arkansas Department of Corrections required currently infected correctional officers to clock in “as long as they are asymptomatic and wear a face mask.” The resulting threat to inmate, staff and community health is indisputable. “I don’t know of any other employers who are asking their workers to come to work if they are positive – it’s only our prison system,” observes Arkansas state senator Joyce Elliot. “It sends a message about how we value certain lives more than others.” 

Confronted with its rampant inequities and policy failures, the carceral system has reacted with defiance. In California Sheriff Refuses To Release People From Jail As COVID Outbreak Rages (Truthout, May 29), Mike Ludwig profiles the “tough on crime” posturing of Riverside County, California Sheriff Chad Bianco. At a late April press conference, Bianco was questioned about the COVID-19-related deaths of two inmates and two sheriff’s deputies in his jurisdiction; the sheriff was characteristically pugnacious. “If you don’t want to catch the virus while you’re in custody,” he offered, “don’t break the law.” Bianco’s crude logic sidesteps the fact that nearly 60 percent of individuals in custody in Riverside jails are awaiting trial or proceedings delayed by the pandemic. In other words, they have yet to be convicted or sentenced for any crimes. As readers of this CRIME STORY series are aware, administrators at ICE detention centers have been equally dismissive of the legitimate health and safety concerns of their charges, preferencing the institution over the individual. In Thousands Of Immigrants Are Stuck In ICE Centers. Getting Out Depends On The Judge (Los Angeles Times, June 1), Andrea Castillo highlights detainee advocates’ complaints that “ICE exaggerates the number of detainees it claims are dangerous while ignoring the risks associated with keeping masses of people detained during a pandemic.” Juan Prieto of the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance tells Castillo: “[ICE has] always had the prosecutorial discretion to release folks immediately. It’s a matter of challenging the notion that they should incarcerate individuals simply for being in this country without documentation.” The crippling power of that “notion” is the subtext of a moving chronicle of an ICE detention center hunger strike by Seth Freed Wessler. In Fear, Illness And Death In ICE Detention: How A Protest Grew On The Inside (The New York Times, June 4), Wessler observes: “[ICE’s] reluctance to release detainees seems to stem less from any public threats posed by the people it detains than from an existential sort of anxiety about its own future.” Too many carceral administrators view not COVID-19 but pandemic-inspired reform — be it decarceration, improved conditions in carceral facilities, or increased protections for corrections staff — as the true threat to their institutional survival. 

What will be the long-term consequences of this season of challenge, scrutiny and exposé for our criminal justice system? In Will Pandemic Be ‘Tipping Point’ For Justice Reform? (The Crime Report/Bloomberg Law, June 4) Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner tells Jordan S. Rubin that post-pandemic, “There could be a sort of backlash, because we ever dared to let some people out for perfectly good reasons that were in the interests of justice.” He adds, alternately: “[It] may also be that, by recognizing that jails, like cruise ships and senior centers, are potential launchpads for the virus, that there’s a bit more of a light shined on those jails, there’s a little more thought by people in the general public who don’t think about it very much, what it’s like to be in a facility.” Approaching the question from a fiscal perspective, Marc Levin of the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime is similarly hopeful. The pandemic, he tells Rubin, has made the harsh economic realities of our carceral system “more urgent, and maybe it wouldn’t have been on some people’s radars or been a priority had the budgetary impact of this pandemic not occurred.” COVID-19 has changed all that. “I think,” Rubin concludes, “we’ll have [peoples’] attention.”

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