WEEK 19 (JULY 19-25) 

Sean Smith presents the final installment — Part 19 — 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 19.

On Saturday, Florida reported 12,523 new cases of COVID-19, marking that state’s fifth day in a row with more than 10,000 new infections. This was especially troubling news for the Trump campaign, with the Republican National Convention slated to gather in Jacksonville in just over a month. In a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace on Sunday, Trump waved away concerns over spiking national cases with his usual bluster, mangled metaphors and magical thinking. After Wallace described the pandemic as a “forest fire,” Trump countered, “No, no. But I don’t say — I say flames, we’ll put out the flames. And we’ll put out in some cases just burning embers. We also have burning embers. We have embers and we do have flames. Florida became more flame like, but it’s — it’s going to be under control.” On Tuesday, a federal study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggested that the actual number of US coronavirus cases could be from six to 24 times higher than the reported total; two days later, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US topped four million, with more than 144,000 dead. The implications were clear. That same day, Trump announced that he was canceling the RNC’s Jacksonville convocation. “We won’t do a big, crowded convention, per se,” he allowed. “It’s not the right time for that.” Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, applauded his decision. “I’m glad Donald Trump took his head out of the sand long enough to realize what a predictable, preventable disaster he was about to inflict on the city of Jacksonville.” 

In our nation’s carceral facilities this week, new coronavirus infections surpassed 6,500 and would remain at that level for the next month. There were 32 reported deaths due to COVID-19 and the inmate mortality rate would not dip below 40 deaths per week until late August, only to climb again. Some of those infected inmates were women. The United States incarcerates more women than any other country in the world. In The New Jane Crow: Women’s Mass Incarceration (Just Security, July 20), UC Irvine professor Michele Goodwin issues a long overdue corrective to the on-going critique of the US criminal justice system, which consistently overlooks the plight of women behind bars. She writes, “Problematically, male-centered accounts depicting the criminal justice system and the many problems found within it, while troubling, fail to offer a nuanced and detailed reading of American criminal justice…. Male-centered accounts about mass incarceration,” she continues, “fail to paint a vivid and illuminating tapestry about children forced into foster care due to mothers’ incarceration, or the dramatic increase in the number of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Pregnant women who are nonviolent, low-level drug users are subjected to penalties similar to those imposed on black market drug traffickers with ties to cartels, large-scale organizations, and gangs.” Goodwin notes that women remain the “invisible victims of a broken criminal justice system.” This is especially true for incarcerated trans women. In Black Trans Women Face Constant Sexual Violence In Prison. CJay Smith is Fighting Back (Refinery29, July 17), Elly Belle profiles CJay Smith, a 59-year-old Black trans woman who has filed a federal lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation alleging that San Quentin Prison staff members refused to investigate her reports of sexual abuse and retaliated against her. Given the shocking statistic that one out of every two Black transgender people has been incarcerated, and that in past years, nearly 40% of incarcerated trans people reported sexual assault or abuse while behind bars, Smith’s litigation is timely and urgent. “I’ve been down too many years,” she confides to her attorneys. “I’ve been raped and assaulted. This ain’t nothing new. I just want to walk out of prison one day. I don’t want to be rolled out of here.” 

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency continued to conceal dangerous patterns and practices, including restricting the distribution and use of PPE and the unregulated transfer of detainees, whether infected or not, between its facilities. In Whistleblowers Say An ICE Detention Center Used Deceptive Tricks To Conceal COVID Outbreak (Mother Jones, July 21), Noah Lanard examines the allegations of two anonymous corrections officers at Louisiana’s Richwood Correctional Center, an ICE detention center operated by the private LaSalle Corrections company. Lanard writes: “According to the whistleblowers, LaSalle deliberately withheld personal protective equipment and vital information from both staff and detainees in hopes of preventing panic. With two Richwood guards dead after testing positive for COVID-19, the deception appears to have proved fatal.” In spite of the evident health crisis at Richwood, LaSalle continued to transfer detainees into and out of the facility. According to one of the whistleblowers, “There were no protocols in place for how to transport someone with COVID-19.” Like Bill Barr’s Bureau of Prisons, ICE pays lip-service to COVID mitigation measures while stubbornly continuing its life-threatening procedures. In ‘The Objective Is To Save Lives.’ Inside The Effort To Get ICE Detainees Released During The Coronavirus Pandemic (TIME, July 24), Jasmine Aguilera interviews lawyers, advocates, detainees and others worried “that continued ICE deportations and transfers of detainees to and from facilities exposes people to the virus.” As Jeanette Vizguerra, founder of Abolish ICE Denver, complains: “COVID-19 isn’t going away today, it’s not going away tomorrow, or in weeks, but Homeland Security is still working, Homeland Security is still detaining people, still deporting people.” ICE conceals the true dimensions of its behavior by rigidly controlling public information not only about the total number of detainees within its system, but also about the number, frequency and results of the COVID tests it actually does perform. In The Hidden Curve: Estimating The Spread of COVID-19 Among People in ICE Detention (VERA Institute of Justice, June 2020), Dennis Kuo, Noelle Smart, Zachary Lawrence and Adam Garcia wrest damning data from the uncooperative agency. They conclude: “ICE’s lack of transparency makes it difficult to predict the risks confronting people being held for civil immigration reasons…. The true spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention is likely to be shockingly high. ICE has caused preventable harm and continues to endanger people’s lives and wellbeing — both inside and outside of its facilities — with its policies and ongoing operations.” 

In Justice Department Report Finds Systemic Use Of Force By Prison Guards, Attempted Cover-Ups (Alabama Political Reporter, July 23), Eddie Burkhalter examines a recently released report on use of force in Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) prisons. Conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the US Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama, the report found “systemic problems of unreported or underreported excessive use of force incidents, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts by correctional officers and their supervisors to cover them up.” Despite numerous instances of corrections officers using violence as punishment and nurses helping conceal inmate injuries, there were egregious lapses in reporting, investigating and prosecuting these crimes. Burkhalter writes: “In 2017, there were 1,800 use-of-force incidents, and captains or wardens sent 35 to [the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Investigations and Intelligence division] to investigate, but only 14 were investigated.” That’s 0.78% of reported incidents. The report faults supervisors for “demonstrating a deliberate indifference to the harms to prisoners caused by the use of excessive force.” In short, the carceral system’s flaws are a function not only of design, but of intent. 

As calls for racial justice in our streets, city halls and state houses continued over the summer,  our criminal justice apparatus came under increased scrutiny, from the use of solitary confinement to police interrogation methods. In Advocates Hope New Momentum Around Racial Justice Will Accelerate New York’s Plans To Limit Solitary Confinement (The Appeal, July 20), Victoria Law quotes Anisah Sabur of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, who tells her: “We should also be standing up for the Black lives that are currently incarcerated.” Vernon Horn, a recent excarcerate, extends Sabur’s analysis. In In This Moment Of Reckoning Around Police Violence, Don’t Forget The Unseen Abuses Of People Who Are Incarcerated (The Appeal, July 20), Horn observes: “As we debate how to reform the police in the future, I am afraid that we are overlooking people in prison right now, particularly those who are wrongfully convicted based upon lies by the police…. Excessive force against people being arrested, falsification of evidence against suspects, and brutality by guards against prisoners — these are all just different forms of the same problem.” Eli Hager, in Your Zoom Interrogation Is About To Start (The Marshall Project, July 20), argues that police interrogation methods also belong in this debate over use of force. Hager quotes James L. Trainum, an interrogation consultant, who notes: “We’ve got to recognize that the same police culture is inside, in the interrogation room, too. It’s that same mindset of using physicality instead of really listening to and respecting citizens, and it doesn’t build rapport with people that’s needed to actually solve crimes.” 

Under the Trump administration, the reluctance of federal authorities to institute meaningful change is well established. This vacuum of leadership has placed the onus of prison reform on state and local officials. In Prisons Are Overwhelmed With COVID-19. Why Aren’t Governors Doing More? (The Appeal, July 17), San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Miriam Aroni Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, share an open letter to the nation’s governors demanding carceral reform. In addition to more aggressive decarceration efforts, Boudin and Krinsky advocate for a complete overhaul of health care behind bars. They write: “For those who remain incarcerated, governors should suspend co-pays for medical visits, ensure the provision of adequate medical care, provide free and ready access to phone calls with family and legal counsel, and mandate that facilities maintain cleanliness and hygiene, including by providing free soap, masks, and cleaning supplies.” Their letter finishes with a stark choice for state leaders: “Save lives in prisons now, or hand down potential death sentences with their inaction and watch harm ripple through communities and exacerbate inequities into future generations. The answer seems clear. Let’s hope our nation’s governors agree.” Krinsky expands on this ground-up approach in Akela Lacy’s Coronavirus Cases Are Increasing At Texas Jail (The Intercept, July 16), in which she tells Lacy, “It may be hard to change attitudes nationwide. But in many jurisdictions, I think there has been an awakening to the fact that we’ve been incarcerating too many people for too long. And it doesn’t have to be this way.” 

The pandemic has presented the US carceral apparatus with an existential challenge like no other, stripping bare not only its inequities, abuses and failures but also its core resistance to meaningful reform. July 19 marks roughly five months since the first COVID-inspired state “stay-at-home” order was issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom, and therefore an appropriate moment to pause our COVID IN PRISON series. A weekly analysis of news stories related to COVID-19 and our carceral system, this series is absolutely dependent upon the exemplary work of multiple periodicals and journalists. Crime Story is honored to identify them: The Marshall Project, for its indispensable state-by-state Coronavirus in Prisons tracker as well as the research and writing of Keri Blakinger, Eli Hager, Christopher Blackwell and Arthur Longworth; James Doyle for The Crime Report; Juan Moreno Haines, Lauren Gill, Akela Lacy and Victoria Law for The Appeal; Nick Pinto, Alice Speri and Liliana Segura of The Intercept; Jolie McCullough of the Texas Tribune; Paige St. John, James Queally, Matt Hamilton, Alene Tchekmedyian and Richard Winton for the Los Angeles Times; Zak Cheney-Rice for New York Magazine; Karina Piser for The Nation; C.J. Ciaramella for Reason; and Noah Lanard for Mother Jones. 

The fight for criminal justice reform in the Age of COVID is on-going. Crime Story will continue to monitor and highlight its triumphs and setbacks during the weeks and months to come.