Sean Smith presents Part 17 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 July 5.

WEEK 17 (JULY 5-11)

New daily cases of COVID-19 in the US hit 48,606 Sunday, July 5, setting a record high for the 27th day in a row. Many faulted premature business reopenings throughout the South and Southwest. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego rued, “We opened way too early in Arizona.” Unexpected demand for tests prompted two major diagnostic companies, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, to caution that the turnaround time for COVID-19 test results had slowed from one or two days for the general population to anywhere from two to six. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was quick to connect the dots. “The labs have been slower. Why? It’s because governors in southern states listened to Donald Trump and they reopened their businesses way too fast and they let thousands of people rush into bars, and as a result, they’ve got massive surges of pandemics in Texas and Florida and other states.…” As election-year politics and pandemic priorities clashed across the country, Donald Trump opened yet another front in his COVID culture wars. “Corrupt Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons! They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!” K-12 students were the latest pawns in Trump’s increasingly desperate quest for re-election.

By Week 17, it was increasingly evident that institutional resistance had won out over reform. “U.S. prisons and jails are opaque, crowded, filthy institutions where the preferred administrative pace is glacial,” writes C.J. Ciaramella in COVID-19 Pulls Back The Mask On America’s Prison System (Reason, July 6). “They have been finely tuned over the past 50 years to resist outside oversight and sudden change.” After roughly 120 days in lockdown, prisoners continued to bear the brunt of this intransigence. Rehabilitative programs and communications with family and attorneys were suspended, already substandard medical care had deteriorated further, and containment and transfer strategies had failed. The carceral system had exhausted its limited reservoir of imagination and empathy, even as the pandemic continued to rage through its facilities.

At local, state and Federal levels, decarceration efforts had largely ground to a halt. In “It’s Like A Horror Movie”:Trapped Inside San Quentin During An Explosion Of COVID-19 (Mother Jones, July 8), criminal justice activist and excarcerate James King tells Madison Pauly, “I want to know why large-scale releases are off the table…. I want to know why they are not allowing science and medical advice to drive the decision making.” In Releasing People From Prison Is Easier Said Than Done (The Atlantic, July 8), Barbara Bradley Hagerty concludes that “the risk of unleashing new violence into the community” torpedoed widespread promises of early release. She quotes John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University, who tells her: “Governors are making a very calculating decision that it’s probably better for them politically for 10 men to preventively die in prison from COVID than for one of them to do something wrong if he’s released early. We don’t view these deaths as all that problematic.” The flipside of this ugly political calculus is an equally powerful concern: that by reducing the number of incarcerated bodies, the viability of the entire carceral system might be called into question. As Joe Nudell, Alex Chohlas-Wood and Sharad Goel argue in Cities And States Emptied Jails To Prevent Infection. They Should Stay Empty (The Washington Post, July 7), pandemic-inspired reforms, from eliminating or reducing cash bail to easing certain probation requirements, are already being rolled back or rescinded. “These rollbacks may be the result of fear that reducing arrests and prosecutions inevitably drives an increase in crime. Some people apparently believe that reducing arrests might be okay during a public health emergency — but only then. But the data… show that such reforms often have little if any negative effect on public safety.” A major component in the intransigence of the carceral system, no doubt, is an institutional will to survive. Or as Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, tells Barbara Bradley Hagerty: “What I hope this moment tells us is that our incarceration rate is a function of politics — because there are many questions about who needs to be incarcerated.”

Donald Trump  politicizes testing and manipulates data, and his negative influence is discernible everywhere. In Inside The Prison Where 8 In 10 Of The Incarcerated Have Gotten Coronavirus (HuffPost, July 9), COVID Prison Project cofounder Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein tells Jessica Schulberg that when prisons and jails limit testing, “their case rates look really low — but it’s really artificial because if you don’t have testing in the door, there’s no way to know what true prevalence is.” Schulberg expands on this, concluding: “Without a plan in place to meaningfully protect incarcerated people from the coronavirus, mass testing does little more than document the system’s failures.” In How U.S. Prisons Became Ground Zero For COVID-19 (Politico, June 25), Taylor Miller Thomas contrasts testing initiatives in the Arizona and Michigan correctional systems. “As of May 22,” Thomas notes, “Michigan announced the state had tested every prisoner in the Department of Corrections system, while Arizona had tested 2.5 percent of inmates in its custody.” 8.6 percent of Michigan inmates tested positive, compared to 0.42 percent of all Arizona inmates. But by limiting testing for COVID-19, corrections systems are hardly restricting the ravages of the coronavirus, only denying them — at their own peril. “We knew that people would point at us and say, ‘Oh look at Michigan, it’s got a huge problem, look at all the COVID cases there,’” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz confides to Thomas. “But I think if every state were to have done mass testing like we did, I think Michigan wouldn’t have stood out. I think every state is going to have cases, we just happen to know where ours are.”

Inadequate testing was certainly one of the reasons for the ill-advised decision by California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to transfer 121 inmates from the infected California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin. As readers of this weekly summary are aware, after the transfer infection rates spiked at the Marin County facility and at least six inmates died. “This disaster is most likely of the state’s own making,” Scott Shackford points out in San Quentin Prison’s COVID-19 Deaths Highlight Official’s Inept Pandemic Response (Reason, July 7). “Few of the transferred prisoners had been tested for COVID-19 in the weeks before the transfer and they weren’t tested in San Quentin prior to being introduced to the prison population…. In effect, the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may have created an outbreak where one did not previously exist, and people are dying because of it.” As Richard Winton and Kim Christensen report in Top Medical Officer For California Prisons Ousted Amid Worsening Coronavirus Outbreak (The Los Angeles Times, July 6), the CDCR immediately implemented managerial changes to the state prison medical bureaucracy. Nevertheless, public health experts worried that the outbreak posed a threat to communities and medical facilities not only in the Bay Area, but statewide. “It’s really shocking,” Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco, observes. “It’s scary. It’s like a California wildfire, and you need to put it out, but putting it out is hard to do, and in the meantime, it’s spreading.”

Watching from within San Quentin’s walls is Adamu Chan, an incarcerated journalist. In The View From Inside San Quentin State Prison (Slate, July 6), Chan notes that the pandemic and the extended lockdown are doing perhaps irreparable damage to the prison’s creative arts community. With theater, writing and music programs, among many others, on hold, Chan is concerned for his fellow artist-incarcerates. “I worry about people whom society had labeled as violent or wrong and who were actively working to take on new identities and new ways of being. And that’s being interrupted now. I worry about that.”

The transformative power of prison-produced art is the subject of Alex Greenberger’s feature, Incarcerated Artists Are Making Some Of Today’s Most Important Art. A Powerful New Book Explains Why (ARTnews, July 8). Greenberger interviews Nicole R. Fleetwood, author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, together with three formerly incarcerated artists: Tameca Cole, Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes. A Philadelphia based artist and curator, and co-founder of Right of Return USA, a national fellowship supporting formerly incarcerated artists, Krimes is explicit about the soul-crushing machinery of the carceral system. “The prison system is really designed to strip you of everything,” he reflects. “They take you away from your family that you hold dear and love. They’ve tried to strip everything away from you and grind you down to the point where you buy into the idea that you are somehow not different, that you somehow don’t have any value, and that you are just a criminal. But the thing that artwork does…is, it allows you to create your own value system. It’s the one thing the prison cannot take away from you.” Krimes vows to use his art to promote conversations around defunding the police and carceral reform. “I’m trying to figure out a way, as an artist, to have something that keeps this issue visible, that keeps it in the public eye…. People aren’t invisible,” he concludes, “but they’re behind walls, so it’s easy to seem like the issue is faceless, when it should be upfront and a priority.” 

Previous articleTuesday September 29, 2020
Next articleDurst Podcast Season Finale: Thank You For Your Time (Season Finale)