Sean Smith presents Part 15 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 21.

WEEK 15  (JUNE 21-27) 

At his Tulsa, Oklahoma campaign rally on Saturday, June 20, President Donald Trump disputed the efficacy of mass testing for the coronavirus. “Here’s the bad part,” Trump confided. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people slow the testing down, please. They test and they test…” When aides suggested that the President had been joking, Trump corrected them. “I don’t kid,” he explained. Over the weekend, the national daily number of new infections spiked up to 30,000 again after several weeks hovering around 20,000; on Wednesday, the U.S. set a record for new coronavirus cases in a single day, with 45,557 diagnosed infections reported. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested that while the United States had confirmed more than two million cases of COVID-19, the true number might be about ten times higher: in other words, more than 20 million cases. In the US carceral system, there were over 2500 new cases of COVID-19 among incarcerates, with 31 coronavirus-related deaths. 

The Trump Administration’s disdain for data, science and civil rights set the tone for our carceral system’s disastrous response to the novel coronavirus. In The Coronavirus Crisis Inside Prisons Won’t Stay Behind Bars (June 25), the New York Times Editorial Board issued a scathing critique of carceral administrators’ failure to honor their fiduciary responsibility to the men and women under their jurisdiction. “The situation inside the nation’s jails and prisons amid the Covid-19 pandemic has become the stuff of nightmares,” the editorial begins. “Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, shortages of personal protective equipment (not to mention soap) and restrictions on hygiene products such as hand sanitizer have turned detention facilities into a playground for the virus and a death trap for inmates.” Citing the carceral system’s overall “policy chaos and bureaucratic sluggishness,” The Times editors singled out Bill Barr’s Bureau of Prisons for special condemnation, noting that “The bureau’s response has been dysfunctional to the point of cruelty.” 

By Week 15, the public health crisis in our prisons was several deadly months old. Policy chaos and bureaucratic sluggishness were not bugs in the program, but baked into the operating system. In Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 In Jails & Prisons (Prison Policy Initiative and ACLU, June 25), Emily Widra and Dylan Hayre present a devastating overview of state Department of Corrections’ failed efforts to confront the pandemic effectively. Assessing if and when testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) were provided to staff and inmates; whether decarceration and medical early release policies were announced and implemented; and the availability and accuracy of reported data on the effects of COVID-19 on prisoner and staff, Widra and Hayre “graded” 49 of our 50 state Departments of Correction (Illinois’ grade was held up because of pending litigation). They all failed. As the authors summarize: “The results are clear: despite all of the information, voices calling for action, and the obvious need, state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective, at best, to callously nonexistent at worst. Even using data from criminal justice agencies – that is, even using states’ own version of this story – it is clear that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response.” It seems evident that this dismal status quo was not only acceptable, it was desirable. 

Without adequate testing and data sharing, it is difficult to devise remedies or test-drive possible solutions. As a result, carceral facilities administrators kept repeating their mistakes, to deadly effect. Surging infection rates at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison and the California State Prison at San Quentin bear this out. As Anat Rubin, Tim Golden and Richard A. Webster report in Inside The U.S.’s Largest Maximum-Security Prison, COVID-19 Raged. Outside, Officials Called Their Fight A Success (ProPublica, June 24), “The testing [at Angola] was so limited that a former medical director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said he believed officials there had sought to avoid confirming the existence of an outbreak they feared they could not control.” That official, Dr. Raman Singh, tells the authors: “If you do that testing, how are you going to handle the results? Never ask a question if you aren’t going to like the answer.” But without those answers, dangerous policies persist. In Coronavirus Cases Skyrocket At Bay Area Prison After Inmate Transfers (Mother Jones, June 21), Madison Pauly notes that San Quentin had “zero confirmed COVID-19 cases on May 30, when California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials transferred 121 prisoners from the ‘hard-hit’ California Institution for Men in Chino to the Bay Area prison with the goal of protecting them from the outbreak… By June 16, there were 195 cases at the facility.” Pauly cites an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle, which concluded that the “COVID-19 outbreak inside San Quentin [was] both ‘preventable and self-inflicted.’” Or as inmate Marlon Slaffey tells the Chronicle: “Everybody was clean until the Chino bus(es) came.” 

The carceral system’s dysfunction thrives on double-speak. In Paraphrase: Correspondence From State Prison (n+1, Spring 2020), n+1 acting deputy director Sarah Resnick offers a masterful juxtaposition of grandiose sound-bites from state officials (including Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom) with the real-time experience of prisoners. The disconnect is profoundly disturbing. Resnick quotes Attorney General Bill Barr, who declares that “Obviously, the health and safety of our inmates and our staff is a top priority for us,” even as a guard in an undisclosed facility is telling “people inside that he hopes everyone catches [COVID-19] and dies.” By neglecting facts, the carceral system (and the Trump Administration) continue to endanger the lives of the men and women dependent on its care. As an incarcerated correspondent confesses to Resnick, “I am absolutely powerless to do anything to help my situation.” 

Several articles in Week 15 detail the multiple ways in which the carceral system neglects and denies prisoners’ practical opportunities and constitutional rights. In Trapped (Slate, June 22), Matthew Shaer explores how punitive fines and legal fees levied against juveniles can cripple families and entire communities. Shaer writes: “In hundreds of jurisdictions around the country, incarceration has simply been replaced by another system of punishment: hefty punitive fines, typically coupled with court or administrative fees intended to help prop up courts battered by budget and tax cuts. In these courts, ‘cash register justice’ takes hold. Pay the fine and the fees, and you’re free. Default on either, and the government can garnish your parents’ wages, intercept tax refunds, stall your ability to get a driver’s license – or, in a worst-case scenario, send you to jail.” In US Inmates Got Virus Relief Checks, And IRS Wants Them Back (AP News, June 24), Rebecca Boone examines the IRS’s ad hoc policy of recalling Congressionally-mandated coronavirus relief checks sent to incarcerated tax-payers. “It appears that the IRS is just making this up,” complains Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative. Individual taxpayers, as well as the communities they live and work in, will suffer. “Loved ones right now are also under a squeeze because of the pandemic and being out of a job,” adds Bertram, “So when you send a stimulus check for someone, the person in prison is not the only one who benefits from that.” In Lawyers Can’t Visit Clients In Prison, So Quit Monitoring Their Emails (Los Angeles Times, June 22) Catherine Crump and Ken White take on pandemic-inspired BoP restrictions on attorneys’ abilities to email their incarcerated clients, concluding: “The Bureau of Prisons email monitoring policy was out of step with constitutional values even before COVID-19. The pandemic has only emphasized the need to reform a system that unnecessarily interferes with attorney-client communications and thus with effective representation.” 

The pandemic has established that these and other infringements on prisoners’ constitutional rights are not anomalous; they are the modus vivendi of our criminal justice system. In The Hidden Constitutional Costs of The Carceral System (The Atlantic, June 23), civil rights attorney Tahir Duckett states this in no uncertain terms. Reflecting on the mass demonstrations against police violence that filled the nation’s streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Duckett observes: “Thousands of Americans have protested in recent weeks, outraged at repeated and brazen displays of police violence. While the brutality against black people and protesters of all races has rightly been the focus of their anger, the twin institutions of policing and mass incarceration impose other grave, often-overlooked costs on black communities. These costs come in the form of diminished constitutional rights.” Duckett exposes the root cause of these imposed costs: the bloated size and operating costs of our correctional apparatus. He writes: “But the courts have rarely taken a moment to consider whether limiting these rights is justified. The scale of America’s carceral system requires weakening constitutional protections in order to function.”

Previous articleWednesday September 16, 2020
Next articleEpisode 221: COVID-19 in Prison: Week by Week — Part 15