Sean Smith presents Part 16 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 28.

WEEK 16 (JUNE 28-JULY 4) 

There were unexpected surges in coronavirus infections in states including Arizona and Florida during the week of June 28, forcing several governors to roll back their reopenings. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned a Senate committee that the number of new COVID-19 cases was “going in the wrong direction…. Clearly,” he added, “We are not in total control right now.” True to form, President Donald Trump was otherwise occupied. On Thursday, Trump tweeted his outrage at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to permit “Black Lives Matter” to be painted on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower, calling it a “symbol of hate.” “NYC is cutting Police $’s by ONE BILLION DOLLARS, and yet the @NYCMayor is going to paint a big, expensive, yellow Black Lives Matter sign on Fifth Avenue, denigrating this luxury Avenue,” Trump fumed. Trump expanded on this barbarians at the gates jeremiad during his July 4 speech at the base of Mount Rushmore. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” Trump insisted. “They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.” The US carceral system reported 3,710 new coronavirus infections in its facilities during the week, with at least 30 deaths related to COVID-19. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation continued to grapple with its disastrous decision in late May to transfer 121 inmates from Chino’s California Institute for Men to the state prison at San Quentin; within weeks, coronavirus infections at San Quentin skyrocketed. In San Quentin Prison Coronavirus Outbreak ‘Tragic, Predictable And Unacceptable’ (Los Angeles Times, June 26), Rong-Gong Lin II and Sean Greene quote California State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who excoriates CDCR for its dangerous miscalculation. “The fact that 121 men were transferred to San Quentin from Chino without being tested is stunning,” Wiener observes. The CDCR effectively doubled-down on its deadly policy when it subsequently transferred inmates from ravaged San Quentin to the state prison at Susanville in rural Lassen County. Local officials were understandably frustrated by this decision, as well as by the poor communication surrounding it. In A Rural Northern California County Had Few COVID-19 Cases Until An Inmate Transfer Led To A Large Prison Outbreak (Los Angeles Times, July 1), Hailey Branson-Potts quotes Richard Egan, spokesman for Lassen County, who admits: “The sentiment is really of disappointment with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to disregard the impact on our community…” In Nicole Chavez’s A Death Row Inmate Who Was Found Dead Had Coronavirus. Nearly Half The Cases In California Prisons Are In The Same Facility (CNN, July 1), California State Sen. Nancy Skinner searches for a silver lining. “While state government overall has done a good job managing the coronavirus crisis,” Skinner observes, “the same care and attention has not been applied to California’s largest congregate settings: state prisons. We can and must do better.” San Quentin inmate Adamu Chan is far less sanguine than Skinner about prospects for reform, however. In San Quentin Prison Was Free Of The Virus. One Decision Fueled An Outbreak (The New York Times, June 30), Chan tells Timothy Williams and Rebecca Griesbach, “There’s no way to address a public health problem when you need to isolate people but your system is bursting at the seams.” 

Official ineptitude and its toll in human suffering are the subjects of Alice Speri’s incisive How A Kansas Prison Became A Coronavirus Hot Spot (The Intercept, July 2). Through conversations with inmates and their families, correctional staff, attorneys and criminal justice advocates, Speri tracks the pandemic’s impact on Lansing Correctional Facility in northeastern Kansas over the late spring and early summer; it’s a painful chronicle of missteps and malfeasance. “I have seen a lot of ineptitude over 15 years,” former Lansing correctional officer David Carter confides about the prison’s failed response to the coronavirus. “But there was a level of intentional ignorance – like [prison administrators] wanted to stay in the dark about Covid-19, they just wanted to stick their heads in the sand.” Faced with administrative resistance, Carter recognizes the common interests of correctional “line” staff and their inmate charges. “It’s not this us versus them mentality. If there’s an us versus them, it’s the line staff and the inmates versus the ineptitude of the top, really.” In Kansas, decarceration initiatives and improved confinement strategies languished even as staff and inmates died. The root cause of this foot-dragging and denial? Administrators, Speri concludes, were engaged in a rearguard action to protect the carceral status quo. She quotes Melody Brannon, a Kansas criminal defense attorney, who explains: “If they start releasing people and it works, and there isn’t any mayhem in the streets, then it really helps the argument that we are over-incarcerating in the first place…. As long as they resist and keep people in, you won’t have that evidence.” 

At local, state and Federal facilities, the US carceral system’s overriding objective was to weather the existential crisis that is COVID-19 and resume business as usual ASAP, regardless of infections and deaths among inmates and staff. Nowhere was this more true than at Bill Barr’s Federal Bureau of Prisons. In Federal Executions To Resume Amid A Pandemic And Protests (The New York Times, June 30), Hailey Fuchs examines the BoP’s determination to resume federal executions after a 17 year hiatus; in early June, Barr scheduled the first four executions to be carried out later this summer. In the context of the pandemic raging through BoP facilities and a criminal justice system on hold due to public health concerns, Barr’s announcement is characteristically belligerent and defiant. Fuchs notes that the executions “mesh with President Trump’s increasing election year efforts to cast himself as a ‘law and order’ leader even as his administration faces mounting criticism for its response to protests over systemic racism in the policing system and a deadly pandemic.” Add to this a crowning irony: as Fuchs points out, “Imposing a death penalty amid the pandemic holds risks for those carrying out the execution: Doing so may require dozens of individuals, including corrections officers, victims and journalists, to come in close contact.” Barr’s edict is ill-conceived on any number of levels. 

This week, several articles centered on efforts by racial justice advocates to extend the momentum of street demonstrations to municipal legal reform. Front and center were community efforts to close the Atlanta City Detention Center, a notorious 11-story jail built in 1996 as part of that city’s Olympic-era civic improvement program. Activists’ strategies revolve around boosting diversion programs and decriminalizing a wide array of city ordinance violations. In Nationwide Calls For Police Reform Put New Pressure On Atlanta To Close Its City Jail (The Appeal, June 26), Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative (or PAD) executive director Moki Macias tells Victoria Law: “A key part to closing the jail is decriminalizing many of the city ordinance violations that cause people to end up there… If many issues of community concern are no longer arrestable offenses, then it forces the public to have a conversation about how we can address these issues in different ways.” Or as criminal justice advocate Marilynn Winn explains to reporter Barry Lam in What Prison Abolition Actually Looks Like (Slate, July1): “The jail is the beast. So we made it a point that everything we do, we’re going to take away from the jail. We’re gonna starve the beast.” 

COVID-19 has exposed the porousness of the prison/community divide; inmates, corrections staff and surrounding communities constitute a single, mutually-dependent system. This realization has empowered “prison reform movements driven by people who are themselves in prison,” writes Anna Clark in How A Group Of Lifers Cracked The Code of Prison Reform (Politico, June 25). Clark profiles prison reform initiatives directed by the incarcerated, groups like National Lifers of America, Veterans in Prison, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and their collective efforts to “build inside-outside coalitions – and [bring] prisoners’ voices into debates that are often about them, but rarely include them.” Clark concludes her piece with a burst of cautious optimism. “If this year has underscored anything,” she writes, “it’s this: No one knows what will happen. In some ways, this uncertainty is a strength. It loosens the hold of the assumed way of doing things and opens up new possibilities.” 

While the pandemic has laid bare the dysfunctionality and cruelties of our carceral system, it has also alerted both prisoners and the public to the promise of those new possibilities. In San Quentin’s Breakthrough Prison Newsroom (Politico, June 25), Emily Nonko explores the revival of the San Quentin News, a newspaper written and published by inmates at the Marin County facility. Together with other media generated from carceral settings (the critically-acclaimed podcast Ear Hustle, for example), the San Quentin News has been instrumental in expanding the parameters of the criminal justice reform debate. As Nonko argues, “The storytelling of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated journalists has been key to public opinion shifts on prison reform in recent years, as the public and some policymakers have come around to the idea that the harshness of U.S. prisons might be inhumane, even counterproductive.” As importantly, jailhouse journalism empowers its creators: “Making media while incarcerated,” notes Nonko, “pushes the men to learn the workings of the criminal justice system that’s dramatically shaped their lives.” This consciousness-raising encompasses underground TikTok videos posted from behind bars on contraband cell phones as well. As Louise Matsakis reveals in Behind Bars, But Still Posting On TikTok (Wired, July 1), social media authored by incarcerates run the gamut from dancing videos to an exposé about rampant mold and rat problems, providing crucial evidence concerning the conditions of incarcerated life. Sanctioned or not, the voices of the incarcerated will be heard. “The world now seems to me a place of endless unknown variables,” Sing Sing prisoner Mohammed Monsuri writes to Daniel A. Gross in Lockdown In Lockup: A Prisoner At Sing Sing On Life During The COVID-19 Crisis (NPR, June 26). “The only thing I can do now is to mirror what I believe the whole world is now engaged in: bearing witness.” 

Previous articleNew Durst Podcast: No Evidence is Evidence
Next articleFriday September 25, 2020