This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Several pieces this week focused on the forthcoming COVID vaccine. The New York Times reports that with distribution expected to start as early as this month, public health officials are scrambling to develop guidelines for the equitable allocation of limited vaccine supplies. As Emily Bazelon argues in a separate Times op-ed, it only makes sense to put incarcerated people at or near the front of vaccination lines. People in jail or prison are four times as likely to be infected with coronavirus as the general population, and twice as likely to die from the disease. Inmates are confined to close quarters, with little or no control over whether they can socially distance or have access to PPE. And jails and prisons are vectors for outbreaks that can easily be spread outside their walls. According to The Marshall Project, incarcerated people will be among the “phase one” recipients of the vaccine, along with medical personnel and essential workers, in at least six states. In many more, they are slated to receive the vaccine during phase two, as a member of so-called “critical populations.”
But for some state officials, the pragmatic and ethical arguments for prisoners’ early vaccination don’t outweigh the politics; as Madison Pauly writes in a piece for Mother Jones, “the freak-out about giving COVID vaccines to prisoners has already begun.” In October, Colorado’s public health department issued a draft plan that prioritized prisoners and other people in “congregate housing,” like homeless shelters and college dorms, for vaccination after healthcare workers, residents of long-term care facilities, and public safety personnel. As in the rest of the country, prisons and jails have been the site of some of Colorado’s largest outbreaks; prisoners’ case rates are more than 550% higher than the state’s as a whole. But when asked about the plan at a press conference earlier this week, Gov. Jared Polis – a Democrat who has championed a number of criminal justice reforms – replied with a chuckle that no inmates would be prioritized for the vaccine: “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.” This comment – and the larger political backlash that led Gov. Polis to reject the recommendations of his state’s own distribution plan – represent both a failure of compassion and a failure of common sense: as Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute, told the Times, “Immunizing incarcerated people is not only a moral imperative; it’s a practical necessity to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Wall Street Journal surveys the state of the pandemic in America’s prisons and jails. In November, new infections in the US prison system reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic, far outpacing the previous peak in early August. Experts worry that as flu season approaches and the virus continues to spread, already-strained prison health resources could soon be overwhelmed. A piece from Government Executive focuses on the federal prison system, where recent COVID spikes have only exacerbated existing staffing shortages, leading employees to fear for their safety or head en masse for the exits. During the pandemic, the BOP has expanded its use of a practice called “augmentation,” whereby workers typically assigned to other jobs are forced into the role of correctional officer. With many employees sick or quarantined due to COVID-19, and with management unwilling to spend on overtime, federal prisons around the country are increasingly relying on teachers, librarians, and even nurses to do the work of law enforcement. And The Appeal reports from New York City, where, as in much of the country, COVID cases are on the rise – and where the jail population is also soaring, with no signs of slowing down. A recent report by the Center for Court Innovation found that between the end of April, when the city took emergency COVID-related decarceration measures, and November 1, the pretrial population incarcerated in city jails increased by more than 28%. The report also found that this sharp rise in pretrial detention has been driven at least in part by the state legislature’s decision, in early April, to roll back landmark bail reform measures adopted earlier this year, making more than a dozen charges bail-eligible once again. Now, with the city’s jail population nearing pre-pandemic levels, advocates say dishonest fearmongering about bail reform – and the politicians who capitulated to it – have created a very real public safety crisis.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the Washington Post focuses on Samuel Little, the most prolific serial killer in US history, whose crimes span 19 states and more than three decades. Little has spent the past two years confessing the details to police, who have used that information to identify more than 50 victims – about half the number Little has confessed to killing. Other cases remain in limbo, either because police have been unable to find a killing with circumstances to match Little’s description, or because the victim is an unclaimed “Jane Doe.” How did he evade capture for so long? By deliberately targeting those on the margins of society: drug users, sex workers, and runaways – almost all of them women – whose deaths went largely unnoticed and poorly investigated by police. A piece from Elle Magazine centers on the life and disturbing death of Kimberly Fattorini. When Kimberly, a model and former Playboy employee, died after a night out in LA in 2017, everyone assumed she had accidentally overdosed – “just another unlucky blonde who lived too fast and died too young in Hollywood.” Then, earlier this year, a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Kimberly’s grieving parents surfaced on social media, revealing a different and much more sinister version of events. And, in a piece for the Harvard Law Review, Terence Andrus, the Texas death row prisoner who was granted relief earlier this year by the US Supreme Court, reflects on his case and his experiences with the criminal justice system. When he first heard the news that the Court would be taking up his case, listening to NPR on the antique AM/FM radio in his “concrete petri dish” of an isolation cell, Andrus cried, “Hello, World!”.
And in culture/true crime: “We Are Witnesses,” a new video project by the New Yorker, presents a “rare 360-degree portrait of the state of crime and punishment” in America today. The project comprises nineteen short videos, each centering on a different subject with a different perspective on the criminal-justice system. Staring straight into the camera, each one – police officers and judges, ex-prisoners and prison guards, the father of an incarcerated son and the parents of a murder victim – recounts his or her story of experiencing the system firsthand, offering an intimate, honest look into the human costs of mass incarceration. The NPR podcast Louder Than A Riot recounts the rise and fall of Bobby Shmurda, the teenaged New York rapper whose rise to viral stardom was derailed in 2014 by a shady gang conspiracy case. Now 26 years old, Bobby is currently serving out the end of his seven-year prison sentence in upstate New York. Tracing his journey from a rough neighborhood of Brooklyn to a major entertainment company and then into the carceral system, the show examines the complex, often fraught relationship between rap music and criminal justice. And New York Magazine reviews I’m Your Woman, a new film from Amazon Studios that “brings a character from the margins of crime films to its center.” The conventional crime drama is almost always male-centered; female characters are typically relegated to the background, where their primary function is to serve as “soundboards off which the reverberations of toxic, masculine drives can be heard.” Set against the wood-paneled backdrop of a 1970s suburb, I’m Your Woman is a crime drama, but an unconventional one: here, a woman – Jean, the sullen, chain-smoking wife of a career criminal – is granted the defining perspective.