Sean Smith presents Part 13 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 June 7.
WEEK 13 (JUNE 7- JUNE 13)
On a June 1 conference call with governors, President Donald Trump hinted at his preference for “domination” as a legitimate official response to constitutionally protected protest. “I must say, it got so bad a few nights ago that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force,” Trump said of widespread protests against police brutality and the murder of George Floyd. “I wish we had an occupying force in there.” Hours later, accompanied by a coterie of aides and Cabinet officials, Trump marched across Lafayette Square, which had been violently cleared of protesters by Federal troops using tear gas and flash bombs. On Thursday, June 11, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly apologized for his involvement in the incident. “I should not have been there,” Milley admitted in a prerecorded video commencement address to National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” Trump’s martial impulses notwithstanding, the behavior of the military and law enforcement was once again the subject of public scrutiny. 82 percent of adults surveyed, a June 11 Reuters/Ipsos poll found, supported a ban on chokeholds, with 92 percent backing the mandatory use of body cameras by federal police.
As COVID-related hospitalizations spiked in nine states, reported cases in the nation’s carceral facilities dropped to over 3,000; there were 26 virus-related incarcerate deaths. Still, more than three months after the first COVID-19 related state shutdowns, identifying and then isolating infected inmates seemed an insurmountable challenge for the BOP and state Departments of Correction nationwide. In Inmates Report Dangerous Practices Inside The Texas Prison With The Most Coronavirus Deaths (The Texas Tribune, June 8), Jolie McCullough reports that Huntsville, Texas’ Wynne Unit was a persistent hotspot, with at least 10 virus deaths. Inmates there told McCullough that the prison “continues to routinely place sick or exposed inmates in cells or other close quarters with the healthy. They say men who otherwise have been separated from one another are still often taken to the showers in large groups.” Wynne Unit administrators were locked in a never-ending game of virus whack-a-mole and they couldn’t stop missing. “To say that the Wynne Unit is taking proper measures and procedures would be a joke,” inmate Dustin Hawkins tells McCullough. Or as incarcerate John Paul Borrego observes, “The Wynne Unit still continues to play Russian Roulette with our lives here.”
In ‘Florida Is Hell Bent On Killing Me’ (The Crime Report, June 10), inmate Krishna Maharaj offers a first-person account of conditions in a Florida Department of Corrections facility. “In my dormitory, one of the other 45 old men tested positive, so they took him out and locked the rest of us in for 16 days,” Maharaj relates. “The beds are jammed close together, everyone has to line up to breathe into one telephone for our five-minute daily calls. They may as well just spray us all with the virus.”
Complaint, however, was aggressively disincentivized. In Inmates At Portland Prison Accuse Staff Of Retaliation For COVID-19 Lawsuit (Portland Mercury, June 5), Alex Zielinski writes: “On May 29, Steven Stroud testified in a federal court case against Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), alleging that Oregon’s prison system neglected to prevent inmates like him from contracting COVID-19. Two days later, Stroud and another inmate at Portland’s Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI) named in the lawsuit were placed in solitary confinement with no explanation why.” On their return from solitary, both men discovered that “their documents and personal notes used in the federal lawsuit had been confiscated.” Stroud eloquently ties his own mistreatment behind bars to the larger struggle occurring on the nation’s streets. “We’re going through the same thing with oppression from people with badges in here as they are out there,” he tells Zielinski. “And, just like out there, people won’t pay attention in here until you raise your voice, until you take a risk and speak out against injustice.”
Even as Texas, Florida and other jurisdictions struggled to implement adequate pandemic protocols, select jails and prisons declared the worst of the pandemic crisis over. In In-Person Social Visits At Cook County Jail Resume Amid ‘Continuing Trend Of Low COVID-19 Cases’ (June 8), the ABC7 Chicago Digital Team reports that in-person family visits at the Chicago facility, suspended for nearly three months, would resume immediately. “We have worked hard to find alternative methods to allow families to stay in touch with detainees,” Sheriff Thomas J. Dart declared, “but nothing can replace seeing loved ones face-to-face, and that only adds to the already significant stress experienced by the families of those incarcerated.” The jail set up ten outdoor visitation stations spaced some 30 feet apart. After being screened for COVID-19 (using an unspecified “CDC-approved screening tool”), each visitor is “provided a mask and hand sanitizer, and then escorted to one of the stations for a 15-minute visit. During the visit, both the detainee and the visitor must wear masks, must remain at least six feet from each other at all times and no physical contact is allowed.” Sheriff Dart was upbeat about the institutional advantages of renewed in-person visits. “We believe this is not only beneficial for those in our custody, but also for our staff, since it reduces anxiety among detainees.”
Dart’s willingness to connect the mental and physical health of inmates and staff is rare. In too many jurisdictions, corrections staff remained the invisible victims of the pandemic. “I’m scared every day. I’m very, very, very scared,” an anonymous Hutchins (Texas) State Jail correctional officer tells Tanya Eiserer and Jason Trahan in ‘I’m Scared Every Day’: Correctional Officers, Inmates Say Texas Prisons Botched COVID-19 Response (WFAA.com, June 10). Texas state corrections staff were regularly shuttled between distant units, regardless of outbreaks. “Forcing staff members away from their families to work 14 days straight in an infectious environment is pure abuse,” an unnamed correctional officer complained to Eiserer and Trahan via email. “They were told ‘you go for two weeks or else you will be fired.’ Officers are having to choose between their jobs and their health, and the health and safety of their families.” True to form, corrections officialdom was dismissive, even blithe, in its reaction to staff concerns. “Correctional officers are a hardy bunch and a group that are determined to provide the best service that they can provide to the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) spokesman Jeremy Desel. “We’re asking a lot of our correctional officers. We’re providing them with all the tools we can provide them with.”
In the wake of nationwide protests and calls to address systemic racism and defund the police, this brand of official sandbagging seemed dangerously out-of-step with current events. In Cut The Carceral System Now (New York Review of Books, June 6), Jack Norton explores the continuum between police reform and the long-overdue overhaul of our carceral system. “Since the killing of George Floyd a little over a week ago,” he writes, “people across the country have been rising up against police brutality, and highlighting the relationships between policing, systemic racism, poverty, and mass criminalization.” In Week 13, several articles focused on the long-term implications of pandemic work-arounds. In Scaled-Back NY Bail Reforms Still Boost ‘Culture’ Of Pre-Trial Release: Panel (The Crime Report, June 10), Michael Gelb notes that even though New York rolled back its recent bail-reform achievements, a crucial precedent had been established. The initial reform introduced a “culture of pretrial release” which, once experienced, could now be neither denied nor permanently postponed. In Probation Conditions Relaxed During The Pandemic. Some Say They Should Stay That Way (The Appeal, June 8), Lauren Lee White details this emerging incrementalist perspective. Faced with pandemic logistics, many jurisdictions relaxed the conditions of probation; in Los Angeles County, she points out, “Drug tests and mandated therapy… are not required while social distancing is still recommended… The lighter supervision is raising questions about whether it’s necessary to return to stricter probation conditions and in-person visits after the pandemic.” Budgetary concerns, White forecasts, will also play a critical role in how this post-pandemic reassessment plays out. As Kendra Bradner, director of the Probation and Parole Reform Project at the Columbia Justice Lab, predicts: “It is a time when a lot of counties or states are going to be looking very closely at their budgets, and if you’re doing things that have high costs, but you can’t tie them to a public safety outcome, then there are going to rightly be questions asked there. I think it will demand creativity – it has already demanded creativity. My hope is that some of that creativity will become the new normal.”
But is creativity sufficient to overcome institutional pushback? In ‘Defund The Police’ Gains Traction As Cities Seek To Respond To Demands For A Major Law Enforcement Shift (The Washington Post, June 7), Derek Hawkins, Katie Mettler and Perry Stein quote Janeese Lewis George, a progressive candidate in the D.C. Council’s Ward 4 Democratic primary, who argues that “I don’t think it’s an issue that we can put in one sentence, like defund the police. But time and time again, where the leadership is lacking, they lean on wanting to do the same thing and expecting a different result.” Criminal justice reform advocates Scott Henson and Chas Moore are far less circumspect in their analysis. Interviewed by Texas Monthly’s Amal Ahmed in “There Are No Checks And Balances”: Two Texas Criminal Justice Experts On the Fight For Police Reform (June 5), Henson and Moore mix hard-won cynicism with grudging optimism. “To take Austin as an example,” observes Henson, “you’ve seen city council [sic] try to implement reforms that I think are very positive… But the police department has fought back tooth and nail at every stage, and often has refused to implement those policies… So, that’s the fight we’re having. When the local government tries to do something different, tries to scale back the worst abuses or divert the resources to different approaches, the police departments don’t want to do it, and they have enough institutional power to say no, we’re not going to.” Moore is even more blunt: “You can’t ‘courageous conversation’ your way out of racism. You can’t train your way out of being a racist asshole.”
Finally, CRIME STORY would like to single out Our False Promise of Justice (Democracy, June 10) by Rylee Sommers-Flanagan for special notice. An attorney based in Helena, Montana, Sommers-Flanagan has devised a prospectus for post-pandemic criminal justice reform which is both empathic and rigorously analytical. “From the prosecutorial state to prison to reentry,” she writes, “we perpetuate unending cycles of dehumanizing punishment. Enough.” Sommers-Flanagan’s piece is an essential primer for the criminal justice reform challenges facing our nation today. “Our current understanding of what can and should constitute punishment,” she reminds her readers, “is an archaic vision disconnected from our better impulse as humans.”