Sean Smith presents Part 18 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 12.
WEEK 18 (JULY 12-18)
The coronavirus surge attributed to Fourth of July celebrations persisted into Week 18. On Sunday, July 12, the U.S. COVID-19 death toll surpassed 135,000, out of nearly 3.3 million total cases. Also on Sunday, Florida reported 15,300 new cases, setting a single-day record for any state. As California and other states rolled back business re-openings, the Trump Administration waged a highly personal assault on public health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. Dr. Brett Giroir of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a coronavirus task force member and Trump proxy, sniped: “I respect Dr. Fauci a lot, but Dr. Fauci is not 100 percent right, and he also doesn’t necessarily… have the whole national interest in mind. He looks at it from a very narrow public health point of view.” Fauci responded to the White House’s displeasure with characteristic pragmatism. Asked his thoughts on the federal response to the pandemic, he noted: “Obviously, we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to almost reset this and say, ‘Okay, let’s stop this nonsense.’ We’ve got to figure out, how can we get our control over this now, and, looking forward, how can we make sure that next month, we don’t have another example of California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona? So rather than these games people are playing, let’s focus on that.” In U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers, new cases of COVID-19 leaped to more than 7,000, and 30 inmates died of the disease.
The U.S. Government executed three Federal prisoners this week: Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14; Wesley Ira Purkey two days later; and Dustin Lee Honken on July 17. Four more executions were scheduled for August and September. Both Lee and Purkey’s executions were carried out after late night U.S. Supreme Court rulings; both cases made it clear that the Federal death penalty operates according its own inexorable imperative. As Mark Berman reports in Trump Administration Carries Out First Federal Execution Since 2003 After Late-Night Supreme Court Intervention (The Washington Post, July 14), even after the Supreme Court’s order condemning him to death, Daniel Lewis Lee spent an additional four hours strapped to a gurney “as another legal dispute played out.” Informed reactions to Lee’s execution were immediate and withering. In The Supreme Court’s Unconscionable Rush To Kill A Prisoner (The New Republic, July 14), Matt Ford argues: “Lee’s case shows how the high court has worked in recent years to facilitate executions rather than scrutinize them…. The justices have steadily prioritized the state’s desire to kill a certain prisoner on a certain date over the prisoner’s ability to have his claims heard in court. In so doing, the Supreme Court has turned the rights guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment into a privilege it can suspend at will.” With the Republican National Convention just weeks away, election year politics played a critical role in the precipitous rush to kill. In Killing In Our Name During A Deadly Pandemic (New York Magazine, July 14), Brennan Center for Justice fellow Andrew Cohen observes: “The entire purpose of the execution exercise is to be able to tell Trump’s base on the campaign trail this fall that the president proved again that he is ‘tough on crime.’” Cohen continues: “The government had the moral burden here, if not the legal one, to justify why the middle of an out-of-control deadly pandemic is the right time to kill in the name of the people. No such justification was offered by Barr, or Trump, or the Supreme Court, because no such justification exists.”
In The Capricious Execution of Daniel Lee (New York Magazine, July 15), Zak Cheney-Rice notes that Lee’s murder took place over the objections of his victims’ families and despite concerns about potential coronavirus infections among attendees. “When officials killed Daniel Lewis Lee on Tuesday, it was common knowledge that several of his victims’ family members wanted his life spared. It didn’t matter. Lee’s death was a spectacle for the government’s benefit, not theirs.” Or as Monica Veillette, the niece of murder victim Nancy Mueller, reflects in a post-execution interview cited by Mark Berman: “It just became very painfully clear to us that as many times as it was said this was being done for the families of the victims…. That in the end nobody cared about us at all.”
On July 16, Federal prisoner Wesley Ira Purkey was also put to death. His attorneys had been granted a stay after arguing that Purkey suffered from dementia and was unfit to be killed. As with Lee, Purkey’s fate was decided by a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision to vacate the lower court order. In Second Federal Execution This Week Is Carried Out After Last-Minute Supreme Court Ruling (Los Angeles Times, July 16), the Associated Press bears witness to Purkey’s death by lethal injection under COVID-19 protocols: “Purkey was strapped to a gurney inside the execution chamber. A prison official removed a mask from Purkey’s face and asked him if he wanted to make a final statement.” After apologizing to his victim’s family, as well as to his own adult daughter, Purkey concluded: “This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever. Thank you.”
Carceral facilities continued to top most lists of coronavirus infection hot-spots, with inconsistent testing and halting preventative health measures exacerbating an already grim situation. With 94 COVID-related deaths, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had the highest inmate mortality numbers in the country despite extensive testing in the early summer. But as Ben King, a Texas epidemiologist, tells Jolie McCullough in Thousands of Texas Prisoners Still Have The Coronavirus. More Than 25% Of Inmates At Four Units Are Infected (The Texas Tribune, July 14), periodic testing provides incomplete glimpses of the disease’s spread. “You get these windows…” King explains. “But if you don’t follow up to see if it’s grown or decreased, you’re kind of playing out those cases you had at the time… It’s kind of like turning on the lights for just a second.” What those moments of illumination revealed about conditions in TDCJ facilities is distressing. In Texas Prisons Have More COVID-19 Cases And Deaths Than Any Other State (Newsy, July 14), Jamal Andress interviews Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project about alarming reports from inside the prisons. “I think that the mood of the people I’m talking to is sort of varying degrees of desperate and terrified,” she relates. “They’ve got no visits, they’ve got limited phone use, if any phone use. They’ve had no programs in many cases. They have been sitting in their cells 24 hours a day, not getting out. Haven’t seen sunlight since March and have been living on these terrible, brown-bag meals that arrive at sort of random hours. And in some cases, they’ve been locked in alone…. And this has been the condition for months during a pandemic.”
Months into lockdown, some state and local correctional facilities were still refusing to supply inmates with PPE. In Alabama Jail Refuses Inmates COVID-19 Masks Because ‘They’re Going To Eat Them’ (Alabama.com, July 9), Ashley Remkus investigates allegations that inmates at Alabama’s Madison County Jail were neither provided masks nor allowed to wear their own. Brent Patterson, a spokesperson for the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, offered a truly bizarre justification: “You give them face masks (with) a nose piece – metal pieces in them – they’re going to eat them… They’re going to swallow them.” Patterson also suggested that inmates might tie masks together to “make ropes.” At the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington State, ill-conceived containment strategies were causing other unacceptable health hazards. In At Coyote Ridge, Amid 229 COVID-19 Cases, Inmates say Conditions Are ‘Disgusting’ (The Seattle Times, July 12), Maggie Quinlan quotes inmate mother Beverly Richmond, who reports that her incarcerated son “spent up to 36 hours at a time locked up in a 6-by-9 foot cell with another prisoner and no toilet. She said he peed in water bottles and defecated in a coffee can.” Another inmate’s wife complains that her husband often has to wait 1 ½ to two hours to use the group toilet. Both men are housed in a unit in which inmates cared for and trained dogs as part of a prison program. With breathtaking irony, that same program pulled its dogs out of the facility, arguing that it “could not humanely keep dogs in cells” for extended stretches of time without breaks. In other words, not even dogs should not be treated like that.
This grade of inhumanity is all the more devastating because it is so familiar…and so expected. As Alan Macleod writes in Private Prison Simulation Game Goes Viral On Apple App Store (Mint Press News, July 10), a trending game, “Prison Empire Tycoon,” features a baton-wielding guard who informs players that “the state pays us good money” to manage “lowlifes.” “Prison Empire Tycoon” has had at least 3 million downloads to date. Macleod quotes writer and prison critic Chris Hedges, who suggests that prisoners are in a very real sense “the ideal American worker; they do not receive any benefits or pensions, are not paid overtime, cannot organize or go on strike, have no vacations or sick days, never show up late to work, cannot complain, and if they try to protest they can be beaten or tortured in solitary confinement.” Prisons, Hedges observes, “are models for what the corporate state expects us all to become.” Degradation at the hands of carceral facility administrators? There’s an app for that.
As the pandemic stretches on, public alarm about COVID in the prisons is being gradually neutralized; after all, what do we call a “crisis” after it’s ground on for months on end? As a result, the physical reality of incarceration, made pressing and tangible by COVID reporting, is becoming increasingly abstract and ineluctable – as if it were playing out in a simulation game.