COVID conditions in prisons-- Democrats also neglectful
October 11, 2021 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Prisoners die from lack of precautions, Democratic administrations almost entirely ignore the issue. "I kept calling the jail to no avail. Then on March 29, when Nick started exhibiting symptoms, I also started calling Cermak, the hospital on the jail compound. I left voicemail after voicemail with my contact information. I explained how people were crammed in close quarters, how my husband was going hungry because the only food available was served by symptomatic people who were coughing on the trays, and how there was no medical treatment on his tier. "

"In New York, for example, I’ve read about how Democractic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who they call a hero, has only commuted three sentences since the pandemic hit. As if that weren’t enough, Cuomo has forced people incarcerated to mass produce hand sanitizer for pennies and then refused to let them use it because the alcohol inside made it “contraband.” In Michigan, I’ve seen how Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has refused to use her pardon or clemency power at all in response to COVID, even though the virus is sweeping through her prisons. And in California, I’ve learned about how Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom recently vetoed a bill that would make jail calls to loved ones more affordable, while also transferring hundreds of people from state jails and prisons into ICE custody."
posted by Nancy Lebovitz (23 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A side note on one way COVID has likely made this even worse: I advise a small student/community org that provides reading material to people incarcerated in the county jails (n.b. not prisons; prisons are generally worse than jails and permit fewer if any volunteers). In non-pandemic times, we'd go in once a week to fill requests.

We have only been allowed in once since the start of 2020.

It's not like we can do a whole lot to monitor (much less reform) the system -- if the deputies don't get along with us we can be kicked out permanently, after all -- but we were at least there and watching. Now we're not.
posted by humbug at 6:55 AM on October 11 [6 favorites]

We live in a country where a surprising number of people in most constituencies believe children deserve to go without basic food, shelter, and medical care. It's not a big leap for those same people to believe that people who've been accused of a crime don't deserve any better. It's a constant uphill battle.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:40 AM on October 11 [14 favorites]

It's often the troubling things that are the most bipartisan in support. Whether it's in earnest or 'out of fear for being seen as soft on crime' as a decades-long political hangover (and, like many things, I suspect the latter gives cover for the former), the inhumane outcomes remain.
posted by CrystalDave at 8:34 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]

Nightmare country
posted by bleep at 8:50 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]

This is a serious issue, but I'm very confused about what it has to do with the Democratic Party.
posted by schmod at 9:42 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]

This is a serious issue, but I'm very confused about what it has to do with the Democratic Party.

Where I live, Chicago, the Democratic Party is in charge of the jails and has been since way before the pandemic began. As of Biden's term the Democratic party is also in charge of the Federal jail.

You want to wear the crown? You take the blame for the running of the town.
posted by srboisvert at 9:46 AM on October 11 [23 favorites]

California prisons have been horrifyingly overcrowded long before the pandemic, long before Newsom was elected (granted, still under a Democratic governor). "Since 2009, the state has been under court order to reduce prison overcrowding to no higher than 137.5% of total design capacity. " It's a long-standing structural problem, not a new one.

Newsom has also been criticized for early releases due to the pandemic, reducing the prison population as much as 21 percent. I also remember that in early 2021, some regions of California put the prison population ahead of the general population in the vaccine tier list due to their crowded living conditions.
posted by meowzilla at 10:03 AM on October 11

Now that I've posted that, noted that in 2009 Schwarzenegger was governor.
posted by meowzilla at 10:05 AM on October 11

This is a serious issue, but I'm very confused about what it has to do with the Democratic Party.

She makes it pretty clear in the article.
posted by Gadarene at 10:19 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]

Californians themselves also rejected removing cash bail in a 2020 proposition.
posted by meowzilla at 10:33 AM on October 11

I don't think she did? She points out that a problem that exists in red states also exists in blue states, and doesn't really offer a counterfactual of a place where it's better.

Should elected Democrats be better about this? Absolutely.

But right now, this doesn't seem like a partisan issue, and framing it this way seems like an incredibly odd choice.

"Democrats no better than Republicans" might be a fair point, but the article doesn't really make any attempt to dive into how this issue relates to national partisan politics, other than pointing out that Illinois and New York currently have Democratic governors.
posted by schmod at 10:37 AM on October 11 [10 favorites]

I think the unspoken point is that we have come to expect inhumane cruelty as a foundational value of one party, so some readers may be surprised to find it exhibited among elected officials of the other.

Where this may not quite go as far as it could has been pointed out upthread - the prejudice across American society as a whole against people who are perceived to be "of the criminal classes" is spread so deep and so wide that the willingness of any elected official of any party to risk being seen as "soft on crime" is vanishingly rare. We've been so thoroughly conditioned with "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime" that a lot of people - and their representatives in government - find it distressingly easy to ignore whether those doing the time HAVE actually done the crime, or whether even people who have done the crime deserve the current reality of what the time actually entails.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:51 AM on October 11 [15 favorites]

And our economy's dependence on the slave labor of prisoners ain't helping.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:52 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]

(n.b. not prisons; prisons are generally worse than jails and permit fewer if any volunteers)
posted by humbug at 6:55 AM on October 11 [3 favorites +] [!]

Small nit to pick here, and I can't speak to the specific jail that humbug's group works with but almost universally (USian) jail is far, far, far worse than prison. Options for food, activities, outside time, exercise, education, space, visits, phone use, books, etc... are way more available in prison than jail.
posted by youthenrage at 11:16 AM on October 11 [8 favorites]

Also, if Democrats are no better than Republicans, then we're left with "in really important ways, elections make no difference; how do we make social change if elections leave really morally grave problems untouched".

Like, if Democrats and Republicans were equally bad about, say, student loan debt, but Democrats were then really good about healthcare, it would be fairly easy to say, "it sucks but student loan debt is a wash, let's vote on the basis of healthcare". But "Democrats and Republicans are equally bad about leaving people, many of whom are innocent or only trivially guilty, to suffer and maybe die in rat-infested prisons with absolutely no recourse, let's accept that prison reform is a wash and vote on healthcare" has a bit of a different feel to it. Like, up to a point it's morally acceptable to say, "it sucks, but we've got to vote for the lesser of two evils" but then you get to the point where both sides are cool with, eg, Rikers and police brutality and so on and you start feeling like maybe it's not right for you individually to just write off other people's lives as "this sucks but it's a wash".

Notably, the dollar-store-Justin-Trudeau mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, is a Democrat, and he has been disgustingly bad on policing. We had the cops essentially hunt and murder a local activist for sport this summer, then we had a drunk Nazi drive a car through a protest and kill a woman, then we had the city tearing up the memorial and brutalizing protesters. Even if Frey can't control the cops, he is capable of opposing them but he's mostly concerned with keeping the nicer parts of town nice for property development. This makes it kind of hard, emotionally, to shill for the Democratic party and the lesser weevil, etc.
posted by Frowner at 11:26 AM on October 11 [12 favorites]

Yeah, elections are only part of the solution.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:30 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]

This is a serious issue, but I'm very confused about what it has to do with the Democratic Party.

Some folks are just concerned, that's all. No other reasons.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 11:32 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]

The last few weeks in Miami have made it quite clear the cops can't be controlled, not even by a chief of police. Too many "friends" and too many quid pro quos. Nobody is squeaky clean enough to survive their onslaught and even if they were, cops will just make shit up like the folks in Fairfax County.

The prison lobby works pretty much the same way, only with the added bonus of enormous campaign contributions from contractors getting rich from the system. Even where prisons aren't themselves privatized, private companies make millions providing goods and services to the prisons and overcharging prisoners for any and all means of communication with the outside world.
posted by wierdo at 11:39 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]

The problem is that the voters don't want to make prisons better and tend to punish elected officials who even consider how we might be less cruel in the punishments we inflict upon those who end up in jail or prison; even when someone isn't convicted and is just waiting for trial. Americans vote out politicians who show mercy.
posted by interogative mood at 12:31 PM on October 11 [9 favorites]

almost universally (USian) jail is far, far, far worse than prison.

A friend who is an Australian criminal lawyer told me that prisoners in our equivalent of US jail will enter a plea just to get out of there. Otherwise, since they’ll get the benefit of time served in any case, why not delay the trial and stay as a technically-innocent person in jail rather than as a convict in prison?

That opinion—which would have to be hypothetical because I don’t believe we have tried making jail a not-horrible experience—has a very long legal history, reaching back to the beginnings of Common Law jurisprudence. At one point the conditions designed to force prisoners to plead were imposed lawfully and openly: prisoners could be legally confined “peine forte et dure” or even tortured by pressing (like Giles Corey, in The Crucible) in order to force them to enter a plea. Now we achieve a similar effect by simply overloading and under-resourcing jails, even in the middle of a pandemic. I think this direct line between medieval jurisprudence and modern penology should be more generally recognised: maybe it would make people stop and think.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:30 PM on October 11 [6 favorites]

Small nit to pick here, and I can't speak to the specific jail that humbug's group works with but almost universally (USian) jail is far, far, far worse than prison. Options for food, activities, outside time, exercise, education, space, visits, phone use, books, etc... are way more available in prison than jail.

Yes. It may vary case by case but in general since prisons are nominally long-term and jails are nominally short-term, prisons have more resources.
posted by atoxyl at 4:59 PM on October 11

The thing about jails is that conditions vary quite widely because they are typically run locally or at the county level and have few to no standards they are required to follow. Some are intentionally terrible, some are terrible because of neglect, some are pretty decent, and some fall somewhere in between.

Prisons, being administered at the state level, are at least somewhat more uniform, though in most cases the warden of any particular prison has wide latitude to make things shitty through policy even if the structure is not in and of itself inhumane.

What really pisses me off are the states and localities that charge inmates for being there and still make it as abusive and degrading as possible. It's adding insult to injury. You'd think that if they are getting charged for it decent food and an actual bed rather than a yoga mat on the floor (due to overcrowding) would be provided, but no. It's still abusive to charge people who are in jail or prison, but charging them for a conditions that don't befit a fucking animal shelter makes it that much worse.
posted by wierdo at 5:39 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]

As someone who works in this system, I understand her frustration. I will point out however that a lot of prisoners were released during this time frame but most of those were non-violent offenders. The subject of this article did not fit under those criteria. The jails should have done a better job handling COVID but they were operating under the same information that the rest of us were, which explains but does not excuse the outcomes.
The climbing population of the jail, which is also cited in the article is as much a function of the Supreme Court of Illinois suspension of speedy trial as anything mentioned in the article, but that would be beyond the score of this comment.
posted by Thrakburzug at 4:02 PM on October 12

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