#FacultyVigil Tomorrow Night at My Office

My colleague and new friend Ron Hassner, who teachers political science at Berkeley, has been sleeping in his office for more than a week. Ron is protesting against the university’s failure to protect Jewish students from violent antisemitic behaviors, like the horrifying attack of last week. His list of demands is fairly modest: he wants Sather Gate opened, protection for speakers assaulted by students with opposing views, and campus-wide education on antisemitism and Islamophobia. Julia Steinberg reports for The Free Press:

“This is a campus known for its protest,” Hassner says. “Put up propaganda! Hang it everywhere! But don’t physically block students from walking. Don’t harass them. Please don’t strangle them. I think it’s possible to advocate for the Palestinian cause without strangling people.” 

I agree, which is why I will join Ron and several of my colleagues at the UC system to stage a #FacultyVigil tomorrow night. We all want to work and study safely. The boundaries of free speech in the US are wide enough to include lots of ways to disagree and express conflicting opinions without resorting to violence and terrorizing. If anyone wants to visit on Tue, I’ll likely be at the office (333 Golden Gate #320) from 7pm until my 9am class the next morning. If anyone shows up, maybe we can do a movie night (I propose Footnote) or we can just have a nice chat.

Friends Want Friends Safe: A Special Message from Rasheed Lockheart

Rasheed Lockheart, a formerly incarcerated firefighter, encourages friends behind bars to take the COVID-19 vaccine: “Your chances of survival are much higher with this vaccine. I’m getting it and I hope you’re getting it, too, because until we break those walls and get everybody out, it’s the best thing you can do to protect yourselves. Please.”

To hear Arnold Trevino’s encouragement, click here.

To hear Ken Hartman’s encouragement, click here.

For FAQ about the COVID-19 vaccine from AMEND, a 100% credible source, click here.

Friends Want Friends Safe: A Special Message from Arnold Trevino

Formerly incarcerated people continue to urge their friends and loved ones behind bars to make the right choice and take the COVID-19 vaccine. Today’s message comes from Arnold Trevino of Insight Garden Program, who was incarcerated for 28 years:

For Ken Hartman’s video, click here.

For 100% credible information about the COVID-19 vaccine from AMEND, click here.

Friends Want Friends to Take the Vaccine: A Special Message from Ken Hartman

Please watch this awesome short video by Ken Hartman, a freelance writer and author and the Advocacy Coordinator for the Transformative In-Prison Workgroup (TPW.)

If you want to help this project get off the ground, please tweet and retweet. You can use the hashtag #FriendsWantFriendsSafe.

If you are formerly incarcerated and want to help even more, please send me a short video you can film on your phone–make it shorter than a minute, so someone inside might be able to watch it quickly–in which you address the folks you know and care about inside. Be sure that your video includes:

  • a bit of info about yourself: your name, anything you’d like to share, where you were incarcerated, and when you were released
  • why you care about COVID-19 in prison: your worries and fears about your friends getting seriously sick
  • explicitly state that you plan to take the vaccine when it is offered to you, and why
  • encourage your friends to do the same when the vaccine is offered to them
  • express compassion and empathy for the concerns and uncertainty they may have and counter it with solid facts and with your love for them

Email me your video to aviramh at uchastings dot edu. I will display it prominently, with a little intro about the specific facility where you know people, here on the blog.

Help Floridians Regain the Right to Vote

Florida is one of only four states in which people with felony convictions permanently lose their right to vote. In November 2018, Floridians sought to change this by passing Amendment 4 by a majority of %64.55. Amendment 4 would automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

Since the passage of Amendment 4, politicians have piled challenge upon challenge in the way of people seeking the right to vote. The latest hurdle came today, when the 11th Circuit ruled en banc that Florida may require people with a past felony conviction to pay off all fines and fees before they can get their right to vote back–even if they cannot afford to do so.

The only explanation I can find for this is an entitlement effect. I grew up in a country in which everyone, even people doing time in prison at the time of the election, can vote, and it would never occur to me that it’s possible or fair to do otherwise. But I suspect that what is at work here is an insidious version of the entitlement effect: They feel comfortable doing this because their point of departure is lifetime disenfranchisement. To them, it’s not about giving people what every citizen has and should have–it’s about gifting people a privilege they haven’t had in a long time.

We can do something about this. Hop on this website and plonk a few shekels to help your fellow Americans – Floridians who want to participate in our democracy and are being thwarted by politicians and courts – vote in the upcoming election. It’s good for Florida, it’s good for racial and economic justice, and it’s good for all of us, because you know that winning Florida is crucial in this election. According to Jeff Manza and Chris Uggen, at least one presidential election (now two, likely) and eight congressional ones would have gone the other way if people with felony convictions could vote. Prove them right by changing history and expanding democracy.

Nov. 2020 Ballot Endorsement: No on 20

Many Californians don’t know that our state Constitution requires that any voter initiative have a single subject: “An initiative measure embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect.” You wouldn’t know this from looking at our convoluted, confusing, oft-misleading propositions because, as my colleague Mike Gilbert explains here, the rule is very difficult to enforce.

Prop. 20 is an example of a voter initiative that quite possibly violates the single subject rule. It bundles together four different issues under the general “tough on crime” umbrella. While I find at least two of them deeply objectionable on the merits and have serious problems with the remaining two, what really irks me is the marketing: law-and-order supporting folks are being lobbied to vote for things which are, frankly, untethered from reality, simply because they are ideologically bundled with other stuff that belongs on that side of the political map. My message to everyone, from ardent law-and-order people to rabid abolitionists: Vote no on this stupid package.

The first item in the package is the introduction of two new theft crimes. Background: In 2014, California voters approved prop. 47, which changed the designation of several theft-related offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. This is how we’ve been able to achieve the Plata-mandated prison reduction with no increases in crime rates. Prop. 20 proponents would have you think this is a bad thing, and to remedy our apparent shortage of theft crimes, you’d now have two new wobblers: “serial theft” and “organized retail theft.” “Serial theft” would be shoplifting or petty theft for someone with two prior theft convictions (because apparently we’re hurting for habitual offender enhancements, too.) “Organized retail theft” would be shoplifting or petty theft in concert with other people two or more times within six months. Both of those crimes will be punishable either as felonies or as misdemeanors. Theft, and various theft-like offenses, are still crimes in California, as they’ve always been, and the $250 limit placed by Prop. 20 is way lower than inflation would allow for (just to give you an idea, in 2014 we raised the minimum amount for grand theft to $950.)

The second issue is another effort to fix something that isn’t broken–Prop. 57, which California voters approved in 2016. Under Prop. 57, people convicted of nonviolent offenses with “enhancements”—special provisions that add years to their basic sentences, for example, because of prior convictions—come up before the parole board at the end of their basic sentence, and the parole board may recommend their release after considering their criminal history and behavior in prison. Proposition 20 would change the designation of some offenses from “nonviolent” to “violent”, to make some people ineligible to come up before the parole board, and would create a waiting period of two years before people denied parole under prop. 57 can come up before the Board again. It would also add restrictions to parole board considerations. I’m going to humbly suggest that parole in California is something I actually know a little bit about and tell you that this is absolute nonsense. Getting out on parole in CA is extremely difficult, parole hearings are Kafkaesque, and the last thing we need is pile more difficulties in the path of people who pose low reoffending risk. To appeal to people for whom the word “victim” is a talisman for righteousness, they threw in the need to consult with victims, but guess what: victims are ALREADY NOTIFIED of Prop. 57 hearings, and if they want to get involved, they get registered with the state. This proposition would drag into the punitive rhetoric net even victims who are not registered with the state. For what purpose, if these folks themselves are not interested in participating?

The third part of Prop. 20 would expand our DNA collection practices. Currently, California collects a DNA sample from people arrested or charged with felonies. If Prop 20 passes, DNA samples will be collected from people who are under arrest for certain misdemeanors. Many people have qualms about expanding DNA databases, on account of the mistakes that can happen. I suspect that, in the aftermath of the successful DNA-based prosecution and conviction of the Golden State Killer, this is not going to be super persuasive; I also submit to you that DNA databases have the potential to clear and exonerate, not only to convict, and I would therefore be willing to entertain pros and cons of this part of Prop. 20 if it came to us on its own, without the other issues. As it is, it’s not worth the price and expense of reversing two highly beneficial initiatives that reduced incarceration without risk to public safety, so I’m still firmly on the “no” side.

Finally, Prop. 20 also involves various changes to community supervision of people released from prison or jail. Currently, people released from jail, or from prison for nonviolent or nonserious crimes, are supervised in their counties. If Prop. 20 passes, probation officers will be required to ask a judge to change the terms of supervision if the person under supervision violates them for a third time. In addition, the proposition requires state parole and county probation departments to exchange more information about the people they supervise. In community supervision matters, it’s all about the details, and these are technical issues that are unsuitable for resolution via a yes/no political referendum.

The complicated structure of Prop. 20 makes it difficult to estimate the expense involved in its implementation. Because the proposition overall would lead to more and longer incarceration—more severe crimes, less opportunity for parole—there would be cost increases associated with it. The only silver lining here, and this tells you something, is that a sane court will find that the two first aspects are unconstitutional and strike them down, which will mitigate the expense of incarceration (but require litigation.) In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Vote No on 20.

Nov. 2020 Ballot Endorsement: Yes on 17

Currently, the California Constitution, in Article II, Section 4, provides that “The Legislature shall. . . provide for the disqualification of electors while . . . imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony.”

Accordingly, people who are serving a sentence in a state or federal prison, or have been released and are on parole, cannot be registered to vote. As of 2016–after our litigation efforts to get it done sooner failed–this restriction does not include people who are doing time in jail, even for felonies, nor does it include folks on community probation. But this leaves people on parole disenfranchised. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, as of Dec. 31, 2016, there were 89,586 people on parole. This is not a big number, because after Realignment, most people with felony convictions are supervised by the counties in the community (in addition to the already existing large probation population)–as of Dec. 31, 2016, we had 235,918 on probation. According to the Yes on 17 campaign, the number of parolees now is even smaller–they estimate that 50,000 people on parole are ineligible to vote under the CA constitution.

Prop 17 would change that. It is a Constitutional amendment that would grant people who served a federal or state prison sentence the right to vote as soon as they complete their sentence. If we pass this proposition, we’ll join the following states, which allow parolees to vote: Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and D.C.

A “yes” vote on 17 has many benefits. As Jessica Willis and I wrote elsewhere, civic reengagement of people after they return home from a prison sentence is a crucial step in restoring their trust, loyalty, and sense of a stake in their community. It makes communities safer by ameliorating the already-difficult trajectory of reentry and reducing recidivism. It mitigates racial injustices (most parolees are people of color.) And it brings much-needed perspectives, with important experiences, into the democratic process, which includes voting for people like prosecutors and judges.

If anything, Prop 17 does not go far enough–like everyone else, the person would need to register to vote, which is an extra step that creates a hindrance; if it passes, many people might not even know, upon release, that they are eligible to vote. But this goes to my general gripe with a system that requires registering to vote, as opposed to rendering all citizens automatically eligible to vote when they reach voting age; I’ve written before about how U.S. illogical obstinance about a simple measure–the provision of a national identity card to every American citizen when they turn 18–perpetuates a problem that is very easy to solve. But even within the constraints of the existing system (every country has tics and wrinkles–the ones here are obvious to me because I didn’t grow up here,) I can see a solution. When I became a citizen in 2015, as soon as all of us new Americans exited the beautiful Paramount Theatre where our naturalization ceremony was held, we passed through three booths: passport application, social security application, and a happy and energetic voter registration posse. Putting together a similar setup at the exit door of the prison is a piece of cake. All CDCR needs is a computer with a working Internet connection and this handy link, and everyone–EVERYONE–on the day of their release can leave CDCR facilities as a registered voter. As to the expense involved in doing all this, LAO estimates a one-time expense in updating state systems, followed by an annual expense representing the need to print and mail additional ballots and voter materials–exactly what you and I get as registered voters.

There really are no downsides, unless you’re a moralistic curmudgeon who for some reason believes that we should continue disenfranchising people after they’ve served their prison sentence. Let’s bring more people into our democracy. Vote Yes on 17.

Open Letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom from Criminal Justice and Prison Scholars

Dear Gov. Newsom,

More than a decade ago you showed courage, initiative, and deep commitment to human rights and dignity when, as Mayor of San Francisco, you opened the door to same-sex marriages. As Governor, you showed the same courage and commitment in deciding to place a moratorium on the death penalty in California.

As criminal justice and corrections scholars, we are writing to urge you to once again do the right thing. Throughout California, COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are ravaging state prisons. As of July 6, 5,343 people in California prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, 25 people have died, and hundreds are struggling with active symptoms and hospitalizations. At San Quentin Prison, a botched transfer from the California Institute of Men allowed the virus to spread like wildfire, with 1,421 people who have tested positive.

A recent report on San Quentin Prison from a team of UCSF physicians revealed flawed, negligent protocols for isolation and treatment, lack of consistent and updated testing, unconscionable delay in providing testing results, inappropriate grouping of staff members, and physical locations for isolations that are terrifying and alienating to the population. These inadequate practices are happening against the backdrop of prisons already bursting at the seams, with many of them overcrowded not only well beyond their design capacity, but over the 137.5% limitation set for the entire correctional system by federal courts more than a decade ago.

The men and women in California prisons are serving sentences meted out by law. The California Penal Code did not sentence them to neglect, abuse, illness at overcrowded institutions with the potential to become mass graveyards. As to those falling ill and dying on death row, surely your moratorium on the death penalty, and the decades and billions of dollars spent litigating capital punishment protocols, should not end with deaths by COVID-19.
Moreover, COVID-19 infection is not a zero-sum game, and prioritizing the prison crisis does not come at the expense of the state overall — rather, it protects all of us. In both Marin and Lassen counties, spikes in community infections followed closely after spikes in infection within state prisons; all correctional institutions are permeable to the outside through staff mobility. Protecting people in prison protects people outside prison, too. By contrast, incubating the virus at our state prisons puts the entire state at risk, potentially rendering all your important prevention work, all the efforts at public education about masks and social distancing, and the immense sacrifices of all Californians futile.
We urge you to exercise all the powers at your disposal and release people from prisons to their communities — not just at San Quentin, but systemwide. Given the overcrowding and contagion spread, the release of a few thousands is but a drop in the bucket. A robust body of research in our field confirms that such releases, via executive orders, clemency, and parole (hundreds who have been found eligible for parole are still behind bars), will not endanger public safety. A quarter of the California prison population is aged 50 years and older; this population consists largely of people whose crimes of commitment were committed decades ago, and who do not pose any public risk, violent or otherwise. Previous declines in the California prison population, through the Criminal Justice Realignment and through Prop. 47, did not put the public at risk. We urge you to follow solid findings in criminology, public policy, criminal justice, and public health, rather than misleading and fear-mongering media reports.

We appreciate and admire your willingness to courageously do the right thing in previous pivotal moments; your initiative on same-sex marriage and on the death penalty moratorium have shown your prescience and will be remembered kindly by history. This is precisely such a moment. We urge you to lead us in the right direction.


Hadar Aviram, Thomas E. Miller ’73 Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of the Law
Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law and Director, UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, UCLA School of Law
Aaron Littman, Binder Clinical Teaching Fellow and Deputy Director, UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, UCLA School of Law
Susan Coutin, Professor, Criminology, Law and Society, UC Irvine
Arielle W. Tolman, Law and Science Fellow, Northwestern University
Adelina Iftene, Assistant Professor, Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University
Michael Gibson-Light, Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminology, University of Denver
Valena Beety, Professor of Law, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
W. David Ball, Professor, Santa Clara School of Law
Keramet Reiter, Associate Professor, Criminology, Law & Society, University of California, Irvine
Zachary Psick, Graduate Student, UC Davis
Nicole Kaufman, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Ohio University
Kitty Calavita, Chancellor’s Professor Emerita, UC Irvine
Susila Gurusami, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, and Justice at UIC (UCLA doctoral alum)
Angela P. Harris, Professor Emerita, UC Davis School of Law
Tasha Hill, Managing Attorney, The Hill Law Firm
Gabriela Gonzalez, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Irvine
Aya Gruber, Professor, University of Colorado Law School
Shannon Gleeson, Associate Professor, Cornell University
Melissa McCall J.D., PhD Student, UC Berkeley Law
Gennifer Furst, Professor, Sociology & Criminal Justice, William Paterson University of NJ
Dvir Yogev, PhD student, UC Berkeley
Caity Curry, PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota
Alessandro De Giorgi, Professor, Department of Justice Studies, SJSU
Brett Burkhardt, Associate Professor, Oregon State University
Russell Rickford, Assoc. Prof. of History, Cornell University
Brianna Remster, Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Villanova University
Aaron Kupchik, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware
Sarah Russell, Professor of Law, Quinnipiac University School of Law
Caitlin Henry, Esq., Faculty, Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies, Sonoma State University
Issa Kohler-Hausmann, Professor, Yale Law School
Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law and Director, UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, UCLA School of Law
Naomi Sugie, Associate Professor, University of California, Irvine
Beth A. Colgan, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law
Hope Metcalf, Clinical Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School
Jonathan Simon, Professor of Law, UC Berkeley
Victoria Piehowski, PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota
Shira Shavit MD, Clinical Professor, UCSF
Isaac Dalke, Graduate Student, UC-Berkeley
Kristin Turney, Associate Professor, University of California, Irvine
Christopher Seeds, Assistant Professor, University of California-Irvine
Joshua Page, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota
Franklin Zimring, Simon Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley
Elizabeth Brown, Professor, San Francisco State University
Daria Roithmayr, Professor of Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law
David Garland, Arthur T Vanderbilt Professor of Law, NYU School of Law
Laura Gomez, Professor, UCLA
Nikki Jones, Professor, UC Berkeley
Chrysanthi Leon, Associate Professor, University of Delaware
Ingrid Eagly, Professor, UCLA School of Law
Sarah Smith, Assistant Professor, California State University, Chico
Keith P. Feldman, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley
Jessica Cooper, Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh
Vanessa Barker, Professor, Stockholm University
Valerio Bacak, Professor, Rutgers University
Jackson Smith, PhD Candidate, New York University
Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware
Colleen Berryessa, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice
Nicole B. Godfrey, Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Mariella Pittari, Public Defender — Brazil, Ph.D. Candidate University of Turin, Italy
Scott Cummings, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law
Catherine M. Grosso, Professor of Law, Michigan State University College of Law
Sebastián Sclofsky, Assistant Professor, CSU Stanislaus
Chloe Haimson, Sociology PhD Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Jodi L. Short, The Hon. Roger J. Traynor Chair & Professor of Law, UC Hastings Law
Gabriela Kirk, Graduate Student, Northwestern University
Matthew Canfield, Assistant Professor, Drake University
Julie Novkov, Professor, University at Albany, SUNY
Qudsia Mirza, Birkbeck, University of London
Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Postdoctoral Fellow, Prison Education Program New York University
Danielle S. Rudes, Associate Professor, George Mason University
Alex Aguirre, PhD Student, UC Irvine
Paul A. Passavant, Associate Professor, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Lauren McCarthy, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Tracey Roberts, Associate Professor, Samford University, Cumberland School of Law
Menaka Raguparan, Assistant Professor, UNCW
Lindsay Smith, Graduate Research Assistant, George Mason University
Mona Lynch, Professor of Criminology, Law & Society, UC Irvine
Christine Harrington, Professor, NYU
Lisa L. Miller, Rutgers University
Heather Schoenfeld, Associate Professor, Boston University
Alex Rowland, PhD Student, University of California Irvine
Thea Johnson, Associate Professor, Rutgers Law School
Stephen Gasteyer, Assoc. Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University
Amanda Petersen, Assistant Professor, Old Dominion University
Brittany Arsiniega, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Furman University
Dr. Ciara O’Connell, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Dr. Orna Alyagon Darr, Sapir College Law School (Israel)
Jill McCorkel, Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Villanova University
Mary R Rose, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin
Smadar Ben-Natan, adjunct professor, UC Berkeley
Heather Elliott, Alumni, Class of ’36 Professor of Law, University of Alabama
Jack Jin Gary Lee, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies, Kenyon College
Jason Sexton, Visiting Research Fellow, UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities
Li Sian Goh, Research Associate, Institute for State and Local Governance
Anna Reosti, Research Professor, American Bar Foundation
David Levine, Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of the Law
Tina Lee, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Stout
Rosann Greenspan, PhD, Executive Director (Retired), Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley School of Law
Rebecca Bratspies, Professor, CUNY School of Law
Jonathan Marshall, Director, Legal Studies Program, UC Berkeley
Eliana Branco, PhD, University of Coimbra, Portugal
Shelley Tuazon Guyton, Graduate Student, UC Riverside
Maryanne Alderson, Doctoral Student, University of California, Irvine
Nina Chernoff, Professor, CUNY School of Law
Hana Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University
Smita Ghosh, Research Fellow, Georgetown University Law Center
Carrie Rosenbaum, Lecturer, UC Berkeley
Niina Vuolajarvi, Rutgers University
Jane McElligott, Professor, Purdue University Global
Elizabeth L. MacDowell, Professor of Law, University of Nevada Las Vegas
William Darwall, PhD Student, Berkeley Law
Allie Robbins, Associate Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law
Michelle Phelps, Associate Professor of Sociology and Law, University of Minnesota
Justin Marceau, Professor, University of Denver
Christina Matzen, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto
Tony Platt, Distinguished Affiliated Scholar, Center for the Study of Law & Society, UC Berkeley
Christopher Slobogin, Milton Underwood Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University
Erin Hatton, Associate Professor, University at Buffalo
Michael McCann, Professor, University of Washington
Marina Bell, PhD Candidate, University of California, Irvine
David Green, Associate Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Toussaint Losier, Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts — Amherst
Dan Berger, associate professor of comparative ethnic studies, University of Washington Bothell
Sarah Kahn
Rebecca Tublitz, Doctoral Student, University of Californa, Irvine
Meghan Ballard, Graduate Student, University of California, Irvine
Jocelyn Simonson, Professor, Brooklyn Law School
Lisa McGirr, Professor of History, Harvard University
Courtney Echols, PhD Student, Criminology, Law & Society, University of California, Irvine
Susan M. Reverby, Professor Emerita, Wellesley College
Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Associate Professor, Cornell University
Tal Kastner, Jacobson Fellow in Law and Business, New York University School of Law
Elizabeth Wilhelm, PhD student, University of Kansas
Sheri-Lynn S. Kurisu, PhD; California State University San Marcos; Assistant Professor
Timothy Stewart-Winter, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University-Newark
Joss Greene, PhD student, Columbia University
Kimberly D. Richman, Professor, University of San Francisco
Matthew Canfield, Assistant Professor, Drake University
Dallas Augustine, Ph.D. Candidate at UC Irvine; Research Associate at UCSF
Leigh Goodmark, Professor, University of Maryland
David Greenberg, Professor, New York University

Full text of letter, plus updated list of signatories, posted to Medium here. Scholars who wish to join are welcome to email me with their name, title, and affiliation.

Triggers and Vulnerabilities: Why Prisons Are Uniquely Vulnerable to COVID-19 and What To Do About It

covid-19 virus illustration
When I reviewed the causes and effects of the 2008 Financial Crisis for Cheap on Crime, I relied partly on a series of lectures given by Ben Bernanke, Director of the Federal Reserve. As he explained it, the Great Recession was a case of “triggers and vulnerabilities:”

The triggers of the crisis were the particular events or factors that touched off the events of 2007-09–the proximate causes, if you will. Developments in the market for subprime mortgages were a prominent example of a trigger of the crisis. In contrast, the vulnerabilities were the structural, and more fundamental, weaknesses in the financial system and in regulation and supervision that served to propagate and amplify the initial shocks. In the private sector, some key vulnerabilities included high levels of leverage; excessive dependence on unstable short-term funding; deficiencies in risk management in major financial firms; and the use of exotic and nontransparent financial instruments that obscured concentrations of risk. In the public sector, my list of vulnerabilities would include gaps in the regulatory structure that allowed systemically important firms and markets to escape comprehensive supervision; failures of supervisors to effectively apply some existing authorities; and insufficient attention to threats to the stability of the system as a whole (that is, the lack of a macroprudential focus in regulation and supervision).

The distinction between triggers and vulnerabilities is helpful in that it allows us to better understand why the factors that are often cited as touching off the crisis seem disproportionate to the magnitude of the financial and economic reaction.

Bernanke’s distinction between triggers and vulnerabilities is useful to the current crisis as well. Today we learned that a man behind bars in Chino is the first acknowledged COVID-19 casualty in CA prisons, and that 59 of his fellow prisoners have tested positive. As of today, we’ve also seen the first positive test in the San Francisco jail system. It’s all going to mushroom from here.
Several of my colleagues (see especially here and here) are making the important argument that the spread of COVID-19 in prisons is a very big deal, to the point that not addressing it properly could negate much of our social distancing effort outside the prison walls. But what is it about prisons that make them such an effective Petri dish for the virus to spread?
Think of COVID-19 as the trigger, and think of the disappointing–even shocking–reluctance of federal courts to do the right thing as another trigger. These triggers operate against a background of serious vulnerabilities, some of which preceded the decision in Brown v. Plata and some of which emerged from it.
First, what gets called “health care” in CA prisons really isn’t. Litigation about it took a decade and a half to yield the three-judge order to decarcerate, and until then, horrific things were happening on a daily basis. Despite ridiculous expenses, every six days, a CA inmate would die from a completely preventable, iatrogenic disease. The cases that spearheaded Plata, including the story of Plata himself, were emblematic of this (see Jonathan Simon’s retelling of these stories here.)
It is important to think again of what it was, exactly, about overcrowding that made basic healthcare impossible to provide. First, medical personnel were, and still are, difficult to hire and retain. California has gigantic prisons in remote, rural locations, and it is difficult to attract people willing to work healthcare in these locations. Housing, clothing, and feeding so many people in close proximity meant not only that violence and contagion were more likely to occur, but also that the quality of these things–diet, especially, comes to mind–was extremely low. Every time someone had to be taken to receive care, the prison would have to be in lockdown, which meant more delays and big administrative hassles. The administration and pharmacies were total chaos. People would wait for their appointments in tiny cages for hours without access to bathrooms. People’s medical complaints were regularly trivialized and disbelieved–not, usually, out of sadism, but out of fatigue and indifference in the face of so much need. Moreover, the scandalously long sentences that a fourth of our prison population serves mean that people age faster and get sick, and make the older population an expensive contingent in constant need of more healthcare and more expense.
The outcome of the case–reducing the prison population from 200% capacity to 137.5% capacity–was mixed in terms of the healthcare outcomes. But it also yielded four important side-effects. First, it exposed the inadequacy of county jails for dealing with a population in need of both acute and chronic healthcare. Second, it created big gaps in service between counties that relied more and less on incarceration. Third, because the standard was the same for the entire prison system and relied on design capacity (rather than, following the European model, on calculating minimum meterage per inmate), it yielded some prisons in which overcrowding was greatly alleviated alongside others in which the overcrowding situation was either the same as, or worse than, before Plata. And fourth, because of the way we dealt with Plata, we became habituated to resolving overcrowding with cosmetic releases of politically palatable populations (i.e. the “non-non-nons”) rather than addressing a full fourth of our prison population–people doing long sentences for violent crime and getting old and sick behind bars.
So, now we face this trigger–COVID-19–with the following vulnerabilities:
  1. We still have a bloated system, because the Court used the wrong standard to create minimal space between people for their immediate welfare.
  2. We’re now dealing with lots of small systems that answer to lots of different masters and have different priorities and ideologies.
  3. We already have a lousy healthcare system behind bars, which could not be fixed even with the release of more than 30,000 people, and that was *without* a pandemic going on.
  4. We have gotten used to doing a “health vs. public safety” equation that doesn’t make sense and biases us against people who committed violent crimes at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. In fact, we are so married to the idea that we can’t second-guess mass incarceration, that the newest preposterous suggestion has been to protect people from COVID-19 by… introducing private prisons into the mix.
Stack these vulnerabilities against the trigger, and what you have is an enormous human rights crisis waiting to happen in the next few weeks. It’s already started.
And if you wonder whether this can be contained in prisons, well, it can’t. Guards don’t live in prison, obviously; prison staff has already been diagnosed positive in multiple prisons. Stay at home all your like, wear your home-sewn masks all you wish; we have dozens of disease incubators in the state and apparently very little political will do do anything to eliminate them.

What should we do about it? Follow the excellent roadmap that Margo Schlanger and Sonja Starr charted here, primarily point four: get over your icky political fears about public backlash and let older, sicker people out–even if they committed a violent crime twenty or forty years ago. If you are a governor or a prison warden with some authority to release people, do as Sharon Dolovich implores in this piece and use your executive power to save lives.

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.