The “What’s In It For Me?” Angle on COVID-19 Prison Releases

The thing everyone was warning you about has happened: the prisons, incubators of COVID-19, are spreading it to the general population. The Columbus Dispatch, reporting on the Ohio prisons rife with infections and disease, reports:

Marion County’s top health official is urging vigilance as the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in a Marion prison spills into the community.

More than 80% of Marion Correctional Institution’s inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, as have more than 160 corrections officers and other employees, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Those workers live in Marion County and surrounding counties.

More prisoners might have the virus because although a prison spokesperson previously said that mass testing was completed more than a week ago, spokesperson JoEllen Smith said Friday that only 2,300 tests had been administered. She did not clarify whether that included employees, and the prison has about 2,500 inmates.

Even excluding the prisoners who have tested positive, Marion County has a higher number of cases per capita than almost every other county in Ohio, including densely populated ones such as Franklin and Cuyahoga, according to Ohio Department of Health data.

[Health commissioner Traci] Kinsler attributed Marion County’s high number of cases per capita to the prison outbreak.

The idea of prisons as incubators of miasma is as old as the prison reforms of John Howard. Ashley Rubin has a terrific thread on this on Twitter. As she explains, preventing the spread of disease was at the forefront of the reformers’ interests, and for many thinkers was a metaphor for the spread of crime.

Many of the campaigns for releasing prisoners that I’ve seen make the scientifically correct point that, as long as U.S. prisons remain Petri dishes for the virus, nobody’s safe. I want to draw an important distinction between this argument and the equally correct argument that prisoners–better said, people who happen to be in prison during this outbreak–are human beings, too, whose protection from the virus would have to be a priority from a human rights perspective whether or not they endangered others.

I’m wondering whether the former argument is made not only because it is sound (it is) but because of realpolitik. In Cheap on Crime I argued that the post-recession reforms a-la “justice reinvestment”, which led to a decline in the overall U.S. prison population for the first time in 37 years, benefitted from having a morally neutral cost argument, which allowed activists and advocates to break the decades-long impasse between public safety and human rights. It’s quite possible that framing prisoner release as a “what’s in it for me?” argument, rather than an argument on behalf of the prisoners themselves, has more persuasive power, and if so, I’m all for whichever argument gets less people, in and out of prison, sick or dead.

But just so that we get a glimpse of life behind bars, here are some words from Kevin Cooper, an innocent person on San Quentin’s death row (shared with me via email through Innocence Project):

Experiencing COVID-19 on Death Row

By Kevin Cooper

In my humble opinion being on death row with this COVID-19 pandemic raging is like having another death sentence. I can and do only speak for myself in this essay, and I must admit that I am scared of this virus!

I pride myself on not being scared of anything or anyone on death row, not even death itself, because after all this is death row. But this virus is more than just dying, or death. It’s a torturous death, like lethal injection is.

I do all I can to take care of me in here under these traumatic times and stressful circumstances. I social distance, I wash my hands regularly, clean this cage that I am forced to live in­ on a regular basis, and I often ask myself is this enough?

Every inmate who lives next to me or around me to my knowledge is taking care of themselves too. Quite a few still go outside to the yard every other day as we are allowed to do. I went out for the first time two days ago after a month living non-stop inside this cage. I went out to get fresh air.

This unit, East Block, has staff who have been giving us cleaning supplies such as “cell block” which is a strong liquid cleaning agent, and we use that to spray on a towel and wipe the telephone down before each inmate uses the phone. We have been given hand sanitizer for the first time since this pandemic started. It’s a 6-ounce bottle and the writing on it says World Health Organization Formula. The same World Health Organization that Trump just stopped funding…no joke!

We still have not received any mask* though a memo was sent around last week stating that cloth masks were being made to be passed out to inmates but that they have not yet been finished being made. Who is making them? I don’t know.

We people, we human beings on death row aren’t for the most part cared about by society as a whole. That truth makes some of us wonder, including me, do the powers that be truly give a damn whether we human beings who have been sentenced to death by society care if any of us get the coronavirus and die from it in a tortuous way?

In 2004 I came within 3 hours and 42 minutes of being tortured and murdered/executed by the state of California. I survived that, and have worked very hard with lots of great people to prove that I am innocent, that I was framed by the police and that I am wrongfully convicted. To do all of this and, especially to survive that inhumane and manmade ritual of death in 2004, only to be taken out by COVID-19 is something that honestly goes through my mind on a regular basis. Right now, I am free of this virus and I am doing everything to stay this way. But that thought, that real life and death thought of the coronavirus taking my life is always present, especially under these inhumane manmade prison conditions on Death Row.

*On Monday, April 20th, Kevin called to say: I received a cloth face mask today as did everyone here on death row. We are now instructed to use it every time we leave the cell.

Cause of Death

Source here.

Today I came across this sobering table, which struck me as important not only for the obvious reasons. You’ll note that homicide is nowhere in the top-ten list of causes of death for Americans. If you look at the CDC reports for causes of death in 2017 based on vital statistics, you’ll see homicide ranked anywhere between #106-108 (interestingly, “legal intervention” is ranked 109.)

Yet, to browse through the list of Netflix and Prime Video shows we are offered to numb our souls from the pandemic experience, you could be mistaken to believe that a much higher proportion of Americans succumb to homicide. And to me, this suggests that the current debate about who to release on the basis of “public safety” is guided more by folk devils than by real concerns.

Assuming that you include people in prison in the overall category of human beings whose lives and health matter (if you don’t, thank you for reading this far–we probably don’t speak the same language and I hold no hope of convincing you, nor should you hope to convince me), it should be obvious that COVID-19 poses a much greater risk to public safety, broadly defined, than homicide.

Now, releasing people convicted of violent crimes is not really a trade-off between COVID-19 deaths and homicide deaths, given that the folks most at risk healthwise, as I explained yesterday, are old and sick and also happen to have committed violent crime decades ago.

So, if there is reluctance to release the folks colloquially known as “violent offenders”–many of whom would barely have a technical write-up or two for the last two or three decades–it’s not really coming from concerns for public safety, is it? It’s coming from concerns for palatability and an idea that this is the right time for abstract ideas for retribution.

If I put the state’s resistance to do the right thing here together with the mismanagement of homeless populations, it almost seems like, at our time of need, we’ve simply decided that the bottom rung or two in the American class ladder don’t matter. And they do, which makes my heart hurt.

In Tricycle Magazine, Chenxing Han writes so beautifully:

The Buddha is often likened to a physician. He diagnosed the unsatisfactoriness of the human condition and revealed its cause. The Buddha was no doomsayer, however: his teachings were treatments that promised a cure, an ultimate freedom from that which ails us. SARS-CoV-2 is a truth-teaching virus. It has revealed to me a deep well of fear: of my loved ones dying, of dying myself (or, during more mundane moments, of running out of brown rice). More incisively, it has revealed society’s disturbing inequities and gross iniquities, forcing us to confront the truth of how the most vulnerable among us—the poor, the disabled, the unhoused, and the otherwise marginalized—bear the brunt of this crisis.   

What this cruel teacher will teach our state about caring for its most vulnerable wards remains to be seen–hopefully before it is too late.

Yes, We *Have* to Release People Originally Convicted of Violent Crime: The Last Hearing of Susan Atkins

Manson follower Susan Atkins loses 13th attempt at freedom -- and ...
Susan Atkins wheeled into her last parole hearing in 2009, accompanied by her husband,
James Whitehouse. Photo credit: Ben Margot for the Associated Press.

Latest news on prisoner release: A couple of days ago, the three-judge Plata panel denied relief for procedural reasons (TL;DR “we are not the appropriate forum for this – go to the original courts.”) As good people are scrambling to put together writs for those courts, I wanted to address something that I *thought* would be obvious, but apparently isn’t.

In the aftermath of putting up my petition to release prisoners, I’ve been hearing commentary that we should limit the releases to “nonviolent criminals.” I use the quotation marks because the definitions of what is and is not “violent” and “nonviolent” is not as clear as people think, and because someone’s crime of commitment is not necessarily an indication of their violent tendencies at present, nor does it predict their recidivism.

In Cheap on Crime and elsewhere I described the post-recession efforts to shrink prison population, which targeted only nonviolent people; reformers understandably thought that such reforms would be more palatable to the public. The problem with this kind of policy, though–as this excellent Prison Policy report explains–is that these kind of reforms ignore the majority of people in prison, who happen to be doing time for violent crime.

In addition to this, if we are looking at releases to address a public health crisis, we have to release the people who are vulnerable to the public health threat. And who, in prison, is most vulnerable? Aging and infirm prisoners.

The math is simple. Out of the prison population, folks who were sentenced for a violent crime are the ones most likely to be (1) aging and (2) infirm. Aging, because the sentences are much longer; and infirm, because spending decades in a hotbed of contagion, with poor food and poor exercise options, does not improve one’s health. We know that a considerable portion of the health crisis in California prison is iatrogenic; not so long ago, Supreme Court Justices were horrified to learn that a person was dying behind bars every six days fo a preventable disease. So, a person who has spent decades in prison is more likely to be vulnerable to health threats. Such a person is also more likely to be older (by virtue of having been in prison for 20, 30, 40 years!) and therefore far less of a public risk of reoffending than a younger person who’s been inside for a few months for some nonviolent offense.

So, if there’s any reluctance to release people who are (1) old, (2) sick, and (3) more likely to contract a serious form of disease that will (4) cause more suffering and (5) cost more money, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves – why?

Is it really because of a mission to protect the public? Because old, sick people are not a safety risk to the public.

So, is it perhaps because we think of these releases not as an essential public health action, but as some kind of “reward” for people who we think are “worthy” or “deserving”?

The correctional system’s ignorance of old age and sickness is a topic I know something about. In Chapter 6 of my book Yesterday’s Monsters I describe the 2009 parole hearing for Susan Atkins, one of the Manson Family members who participated in the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969. Forty years later, in her early sixties and ravaged by an inoperable brain tumor, Atkins–a devout Christian with a clean disciplinary record for decades–was wheeled into her hearing on a gurney. At her side was her 17-year husband, lawyer James Whitehouse, who represented her in the hope that she be allowed to spend the last few months of her life by his side.

The Parole Commissioners’ treatment of the case was shockingly obtuse. They started by offering the barely conscious Atkins a hearing aid (as if she could hear them), analyzed old psychological reports from her file, and addressed her educational and rehabilitation “prospect.” They even mocked her husband for being able to afford palliative care for his wife. Incensed by this facetiousness, Whitehouse exploded:

For the record, she’s lying in her gurney here. She is paralyzed over 85 percent of her body. She can move her head up and down. She can move it to the side. She used to have partial use of her left arm, partial limited use, meaning she can’t wave to you. She can’t give you a thumbs up. She no longer can point at you, I believe. She can’t snap her fingers. And this is the evidence. . . . We haven’t been able to get her in a wheelchair for well over a year. Permanent speech impairment—“does not communicate, speaking or writing”—complex medical needs, assistance needed eating, bathing, grooming, moving, cleaning, permanent speech and comprehension impairment due to underlying medical problems. . . . That’s the only evidence regarding her medical condition. And all those things have to do with what we are supposed to be looking for the future of behavior. In light of that, is there anything that her commitment offense has to do that’s probative to what she’s going to be doing in the future as far as you know? That’s a question.

The Parole Board refused to release Atkins, arguing that “these Manson killings and the rampage that went on is almost iconic and they have the ability to influence many other people, and she still has that ability as part of that group.” Atkins, who had no ability to do anything at all, died alone in prison a few months later.

If this outcome feels okay to you, ask yourself: what’s it to you? Do you have an idea of deservedness, of a price to pay, of just deserts? Do you think your idea of an appropriate time spent behind bars bows to no one, to nothing, not even to old age, sickness, and death?

Do you feel comfortable sentencing thousands of California prisoners to death because of these ideas of deservedness, or appropriate retribution, that you have? Will these ideas give you comfort when CDCR has to reckon with thousands of preventable deaths of human beings, just like you?

And if your answer is, “well, they didn’t consider that when they killed their victims, right?”, I have news for you: The victims are not coming back. They’ve been gone for decades. It’s horrible, and tragic, and we can’t fix that. Certainly not with another tragedy.

Get in touch with our common humanity. Write to the Governor. Sign my petition. Do something.

Gov. Newsom, Please Release More Prisoners to Prevent CDCR from Becoming a Mass Grave

Dear Gov. Newsom,

Many thanks for your tireless work on behalf of Californians in their hour of need. I can only imagine the multiple emergencies on your agenda and the many proverbial fires you must put out to “flatten the curve” and give our emergency services a fighting chance against the COVID-19 pandemic.

I appreciated learning about your recent commutations, as well as about the plans you have put in place to release 3,500 prisoners from CDCR custody. It is a good start, but, unfortunately, it will likely be merely a drop in the bucket.

Less than a decade ago, the Supreme Court found healthcare conditions at CDCR so appalling that, every six days, a person behind bars died from a preventable, iatrogenic disease. The Court attributed this massive failure to deliver anything that could be even remotely called “health care” to overcrowding in prisons, and supported the federal three-judge panel recommendation to release approximately 30,000 prisoners. That has somewhat improved the situation, but even with massive efforts toward a turnaround on the part of the federal receiver, we are still seeing woefully deficient healthcare–interminable lines and wait times, people treated in cages in which they have to wait for hours, “group therapy” consisting of a semicircle of cages.

And that’s without a pandemic going on.

Gov. Newsom, our prisons are a Petri dish for contagion and disease. It is impossible to provide minimal health care to this many people with a highly contagious virus on the loose.

The Public Policy Institute of California, relying on CDCR statistics, reports that 23% of California inmates are 50 or older. Aging prisoners may be contributing to California’s prison health care costs—now highest in the nation. The state spent $19,796 per inmate on health care in fiscal year 2015, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. These costs were more than three times the national average and 25% more than in 2010. Moreover, many California prisoners serve extremely long sentences: Approximately 33,000 inmates are serving sentences of life or life without parole. Another 7,000 are “third strikers,” fewer than 100 of whom are released annually after serving about 17 years. Fewer than 1,000 of these inmates are released every year, typically after spending two or more decades behind bars.

Isn’t decades in prison enough? How much retribution or deterrence do we still need for people serving sentences of 30, 40, or 50 years, that we must keep them behind bars for longer in the face of a lethal pandemic?

Robust research about aging in prison confirms that people age much faster behind bars than they do on the outside, and they are much more vulnerable to disease–partly because of confinement conditions and partly due to faulty health care.

The scale of releases we should contemplate is in the tens of thousands, not in the thousands. If you do not act now, within a few short weeks, the CDCR will become a mass grave.

Please, don’t let the current litigation be the only push to do the right thing. You have done the right thing so many times–as Mayor of San Francisco and as our Governor. The prisoners are Californians, too. They can’t vote from prison, but they are your constituents and you must consider their welfare.

Please, act now, before thousands of lives are lost.

Readers, please join this open letter by signing my Change.org petition.

Body-Worn Cameras in Prison?

I just got off the phone with a person who is serving a long sentence in a CA prison (I will keep the person’s details to myself to preserve their anonymity.) The person heard my KPFA interview about Yesterday’s Monsters and some of the reforms I suggested resonated with them. They had some reform ideas of their own, which struck me as interesting and important, and I promised them I would float them to the criminal justice reform community, and here’s the most obvious and interesting one: Why not require that correctional personnel wear body-worn cameras in prison?

It’s certainly an idea whose time has come; I’ve looked at a few correctional gear websites and the technology exists. Problems with privacy and technology quality now have solutions. More importantly, everybody wins. I think it’s an easy sell to the correctional community: look at this CorrectionsOne article from 2014, before the technology became ubiquitous in police departments around the country. Prison guards might be well served to rely on the proven effects of the technology in improving the behavior of the incarcerated people they interact with, as well as addressing false accusations of brutality and avoiding lengthy and costly litigation. Incarcerated folks could use them to pursue redress in cases of physical or sexual assault. Moreover, footage captured in the course of an incident leading to a disciplinary write-up (115/128 in CA) could be used to explain the circumstances of the write-up to the prison authorities and/or to the parole board. In short, everyone wins. 
The privacy concerns that are often raised in the context of police-worn cameras are largely mitigated in a prison environment. Prisons are already equipped with cameras (apparently woefully antiquated ones compared to the capabilities we have now) and people do not have what the law recognizes as a reasoanble expectation of privacy in prison (e.g., Samson, Florence). 
Cops, Cameras, and CrisisAili Malm and Mike White have a wonderful new book out about body-worn cameras for police officers. They review the scientific evidence we have on the impact of body-worn cameras on policing quality, use of force by and against the police, behavior toward the police, complaints (true and false), etc., and offer some helpful policy guidelines for how to regulate the use of cameras. The thorniest issue, I think, is how the footage gets used. Prisons would require careful regulation of the footage use and access to it–even more so than in the police context, because the access to technology to see, let alone use, the footage is so asymmetric. But that something is difficult doesn’t mean it should not be done. If it’s something that is likely to improve behavior in prisons and prevent violence and abuse, it should be in everyone’s benefit to implement it. 
I’d like to hear from you, readers, what you think about this idea. What do we know about current camera coverage of prisons? What gaps are there in the factual accounts of narratives about encounters between prisoners and guards that cameras could fill? How much would it cost to fit the entire correctional staff at CDCR with cameras and to process and store the footage on the cloud? Most importantly, are there any drawbacks to this idea that my correspondent or I might not have thought about?

Hunger Strike in Calaveras County Jail

Jail
Calaveras County Jail, courtesy
The Calaveras Enterprise.
Chapter 6 of Cheap on Crime dealt with a transition with our perception of inmates–from wards of the state, who need to be clothed and fed and taken care of for the duration of their sentence, to capitalist consumers, whose every need beyond the very bare minimum (and sometimes even the bare minimum!) is monetized. The consumer label, of course, is ironic

Well, the shit finally hit the fan at Calaveras County Jail, where inmates are fed up with the endless monetization of their lives. The Calaveras Enterprise reports:

Seventeen inmates at the Calaveras County Jail have announced their plan to initiate a hunger strike in protest of “outrageous prices” for telephone calls and commissary items including soup and ramen noodles.

“Not only are we afflicted, but our families as well,” the inmates wrote in a letter to the Enterprise. “We have made attempts at every other level to have this situation resolved, to no avail. We are hoping that the public can get involved and know the real situation that is going on here.”

According to the inmates, local calls cost $2.91 for the first minute and 41 cents for each additional minute, while long-distance calls cost only 21 cents per minute. A soup from the jail’s canteen currently costs $1.23. They claim that those prices are far higher than those at other California facilities in which some of them have been detained.

Nineteen-year-old inmate Marc Holocker told the Enterprise on Monday that prices have gone up at the jail since he was incarcerated in May, and that his weekly allowance of $20 provided by his family is no longer sufficient to meet his needs. Outside of the telephone calls to his lawyer, which are free of charge, Holocker no longer calls family members, he said, opting instead to spend his money on food items.

Just recently I posted about how the prison food industry is one small, often unnoticed “piecemeal privatization” that escapes the gaze of the anti-private-prison crowd. The awfulness and meagerness of prison food (nutraloaf anyone?) feeds (no pun intended) directly into the commissary business. The phone call gauging is an ongoing scandal, in CA and elsewhere (and that’s before we even ask hard questions about the calls’ privacy). In Cheap on Crime I bitterly commented that people in prisons and jails who review their institutions on Yelp have drawn the natural conclusions about how they’re being treated, and it seems the people striking in Calaveras are taking to more direct action.

Three-Judge-Panel: State Must Comply with Population Reduction Order; Jerry Threatened with Contempt

Image from CDCR’s three-judge-panel page.

A decision came out yesterday from the three-judge-panel that issued the original Plata v. Schwarzenegger decision: The state must comply with the original order. Moreover, should it not do so, it will be held in contempt. The L.A. Times reports:

In a blistering 71-page ruling, the jurists rejected Brown’s bid to end restrictions they imposed on crowding in the lockups. The state cannot maintain inmate numbers that violate orders intended to eliminate dangerous conditions behind bars, they said.

Brown and other officials “will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States,” the judges wrote.

“At no point over the past several months have defendants indicated any willingness to comply, or made any attempt to comply, with the orders of this court,” they said. “In fact, they have blatantly defied them.”

The judges gave the state 21 days to submit a plan for meeting the population target by the end of the year. Administration officials said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The piece pretty much speaks for itself, but I do want to say something about this to readers wondering why the state hasn’t been held in contempt so far, which is a question I get asked a lot when I talk about this. I think it’s important to understand that, while federal courts–rather than state administrators–have pretty much been the go-to place for inmate rights suits, courts are not natural policy designers. The judicial system is built on the premise of case-by-case arbitration, with an outcome that “takes sides” in a dispute between two parties (Martin Shapiro calls this “the logic of the triad“). Their ability to generalize and supervise is limited. The ways they perceive the world, discursively, are limited to assessing whether state agencies behaved in a way that violated constitutional standards – yes or no. Orders, supervision, revisiting issues–courts do all of those, but they do them because they have to. The hard work has to be done primarily by the state. Which is why, whenever possible, having a consent decree is a priority, and if that is impossible, it is at least useful to get some cooperation from the state and refrain from steps that will escalate the animosity between the state and the courts.

The escalation here–actually threatening the Governor with contempt–is understandable if one considers what Jerry has done in the last few weeks. He has attacked the special masters and receiver, and even griped about attorney’s fees for the inmates’ advocates. When seen in the context of this public relations crusade to besmirch the other side and the court-ordered mechanism, a threat of contempt is a logical response. And of course, the state retaliates by threatening an appeal to the Supreme Court. This is a collision course that will not end well, and it would behoove the Governor, and the state representatives, to consider growing up and collaborating with the courts. As things stand now, everyone has plenty to lose.