Sean Smith presents Part 14 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 14.


WEEK 14 (JUNE 14-JUNE 20) 

Twenty-one states saw an increase in their average, daily new coronavirus cases over the week leading to June 14, with Alabama, Oregon and South Carolina recording the biggest spikes. Nearing its annual recess, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination and reversed the Trump Administration’s challenge to DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), declaring the Administration’s action “arbitrary and capricious.” In response, Trump tweeted that the court “doesn’t like me.” Also on Thursday, the Air Force announced an official investigation into the controversial use of military RC-26 surveillance planes to monitor protests in Minneapolis and Washington earlier in the month.  And in US jails, prisons and detention facilities, the weekly total for new reported infections hovered above 2,000, a significant decline from the previous week. Thirty one incarcerated Americans died of COVID-related causes. 

US law enforcement was the subject of intense scrutiny this week, with widespread calls to defund and dismantle police departments. In Unbundle The Police (The Atlantic, June 11), Derek Thompson joins the national conversation, attributing violence in policing to the broad, often contradictory functions commonly performed by  officers. “The roles of warrior cop, traffic patroller, and tax collector are bound up in a way that practically guarantees a large number of violent encounters between armed police and civilians,” he writes. Thompson urges communities to “unbundle” law enforcement’s many functions, in order to better distinguish police department services and align them with our most pressing societal needs. 

Critiques of the carceral system’s mishandling of the pandemic continued uninterrupted. More than three months after the first infections were reported here, US jails, prisons and detention facilities remained as ill-adapted as ever to deal with the surging health crisis. As Timothy Williams, Libby Seline and Rebecca Griesbach summarize in Coronavirus Cases Rise Sharply In Prisons Even As They Plateau Nationwide (The New York Times, June 16): “A muddled, uneven response by corrections officials to testing and care for inmates and workers is complicating the spread of the coronavirus. In interviews, prison and jail officials acknowledged that their approach has largely been based on trial and error, and that an effective, consistent response for US correctional facilities remains elusive.” Multiple local communities and state governments had pivoted successfully in order to mitigate the threat posed by COVID-19; that our carceral facilities had failed to do so, almost without exception, was inexcusable and damning. It was proof, not so much of a dereliction of duty, but of the paradoxical nature of incarceration in the United States: the system is neither designed nor operated to save lives, but to warehouse the convicted as inexpensively as possible. The article’s’ authors quote Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for the New York City jail system, who suggests: “I think a lot of times some of the operational challenges of either not having adequate quarantine policies or adequate medical isolation policies are so vexing that places simply decide that they can just throw up their hands.” It was clear that faced with the challenge of COVID-19, many correctional facilities had simply surrendered. 

This trial-and-mostly-error approach jeopardizes the health and safety of inmates, staff and communities. One failed strategy is the increased reliance on solitary confinement as a method of quarantine. According to C.J. Ciaramella in Report: Solitary Confinement In U.S. Prisons Spiked By 500 Percent When Coronavirus Hit (Reason, June 15), “At least 300,000 people have been put in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails since COVID-19 reached American shores.” This reverses a decade-long decline in the use of solitary by state corrections departments. Ciaramella quotes Amy Fettig, director of the ACLU Stop Solitary Campaign, who laments: “What we are witnessing now is an evisceration of that trend and, I fear, a rollback of those reforms.” Lockdown was still another egregious, emergency form of confinement implemented by many facilities; in most state prisons, lockdown measures had been in place for months. In As COVID-19 Spreads In Prisons, Lockdowns Spark Fear Of More Solitary Confinement (NPR, June 15), Joseph Shapiro explores just what that means for inmates. “Lockdown varies from prison to prison,” he notes. “In most cases, prisoners can’t leave their cells for meals, exercise or prison jobs and can’t receive visits from family. There might also be limits on mail and phone calls.” The sustained use of both solitary confinement and lockdown in response to the pandemic is deeply troubling, pointing the way to the eventual normalization of these practices. 

Improvised, restrictive solutions were everywhere in evidence, particularly in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. In I Begged them To Let Me Die”: How Federal Prisons Became Coronavirus Death Traps (The Marshall Project, June 18), Keri Blakinger and Keegan Hamilton note that the BoP’s ad hoc approach to the pandemic exacerbated an already fraught situation. They interview Joseph Mayle, local union chief and a counselor at the troubled FCI Elkton prison, who complains “It took two or three weeks to finally do anything. There was no across-the-board ‘This is what everyone needs to be doing here.’ It’s a crock of shit.” Blakinger and Hamilton analyze how this lack of guidance affects both inmates and staff. The seemingly random shuffling and re-shuffling of infected inmates throughout the institution endangers everyone. As Donald Schlittenhardt, a 54-year-old Elkton prisoner, writes to the authors: “As far as I can tell, they ended up taking about one of every five out of [my unit]. That puts your odds no better than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.” 

In Punishment by Pandemic (The New Yorker, June 22), Rachel Aviv conducts a parallel top-to-bottom examination of Cummins Unit, a notorious plantation-style state penitentiary in southeast Arkansas. Working from conversations with some thirty inmates and their families, Aviv paints a disturbing portrait of an institution crumbling under its own inefficiencies and the struggle of incarcerates to adapt and survive. She profiles DeMarco Raynor, 41 years old and serving a life sentence, who tells Aviv that the coronavirus has exposed the carceral system’s essential inhumanity. “I always knew in the back of my mind: You don’t care at all about us… It’s scary, because everything has come to fruition… We suffer from things we didn’t even know we suffered from.” Too many residents in federal halfway houses and detainees in ICE facilities (many run by for-profit correctional conglomerates) echo Raynor’s devastating conclusion. In GEO Group’s Blundering Helped Spread Coronavirus (The Intercept, June 17), an anonymous resident of a GEO Group-operated halfway house in Leavenworth, Kansas tells Liliana Segura: “It’s pretty tough dealing with being sick with COVID-19 in this facility because the people that run it have no concern for the fact that we’re actually sick. It’s just like statistical number processing.” In “Don’t Give Up”: A Woman’s Fight To Save Her Brother From A COVID-Plagued ICE Jail (Mother Jones, June 15), Noah Lanard chronicles Margarita Albarran Luna’s extraordinary efforts to obtain adequate medical care for her ailing brother Raul Luna Gonzalez, detained in Louisiana’s Richmond Correctional Center. In late April, after a year in detention, colon cancer-survivor Luna contracted COVID-19; Albarran took the story to Telemundo, who publicized his plight. Luna was subsequently transferred to a hospital in shackles. “Are you serious?” Luna asked his guards. “You’re going to handcuff me? I can’t walk. I’m fighting for my life.” Luna, Lanard writes, “compared Richmond to a Nazi concentration camp.” 

Confronted by the carceral system’s overall failures of organization, staff preparedness, medical care and infrastructure, what did the BoP do? With characteristic tone-deafness and cruelty, Attorney General Barr’s Bureau resolved to restart the federal death penalty after an almost two-decades long hiatus, scheduling the executions of four prisoners starting in mid-July. In After 17 Years, Bureau Of Prisons Set To Resume Federal Executions (The Appeal, June 16), Cassandra Stubbs, director for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, complains to Lauren Gill: “Decades of the modern death penalty have taught us again and again that it is biased, arbitrary, and error-prone. States and people around the country are increasingly turning away from it. As always with this administration… it is a distraction from the real issues the country is begging them to deal with.”  

Overcrowding and understaffing continued to cripple the system’s COVID preparedness, and halting implementation of decarceration efforts made a bad situation even worse. “Reducing the population is the number one thing,” Josiah Rich, an epidemiologist at the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights tells Molly Minta in Incarcerated, Infected, and Ignored: Inside An Arkansas Prison Outbreak (The Nation, June 17): “Anybody who knows anything about corrections knows that if you don’t have some empty wards, you can’t social distance anybody and [then] you’re hosed.” But, as Dara Lind observes in The Prison Was Built To Hold 1,500 Inmates. It Had Over 2,000 Coronavirus Cases (ProPublica, June 18), “Prison architects… don’t design facilities for large numbers of people suffering a new and mysterious disease. The novel coronavirus was something prisons, literally, were not designed to manage.” 

COVID-19 has exposed the fraught interface of carceral facilities and the human lives they control and contain. This extends to the very design of those facilities; our malfunctioning jails and prisons are our collective creation and responsibility. “We are what we build,” writes architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in There’s No Reason For An Architect To Design A Death Chamber (The New York Times, June 12). “That includes our jails and prisons.” Kimmelman profiles African-American architect Michael Ford, who resigned from SmithGroup, one of the nation’s biggest architecture firms, to protest the company’s numerous carceral projects, including juvenile detention spaces, a jail, and the City of Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. “These project types are the literal structures of structural racism against black people in the United States,” Ford asserts. To design the lay-out of a carceral institution, Ford and other architects like him have discovered, is to perpetuate the repressive functions of those institutions. As Kimmelman concludes, “Architects should not contribute their expertise to the most egregious aspects of a system that commits exceptional violence against African-Americans and other minorities.”