By Quinn McGarrigle
“The Coronavirus came to the United States in January 2020. As it began to spread across the country, I knew it was just a matter of time before it found its way into America’s prisons, and that once that happened, all hell would break loose. I may be wrong, and really hope I am.”—Eva Contreraz, Kern Valley State Prison
At the time of this writing, in the second week of May, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be reaching a peak in the United States. Accurate information is hard to come by, and at this point accurate information means only reasonably well informed estimates and predictions. Whether this will be only the first peak of several remains to be seen, and the possibility of new outbreaks and new peaks seems now to depend on what protocol is adopted for easing the present quarantine and social distancing measures. The reality of the pandemic has not settled easily into the American consciousness, and the organized responses most visible in the media have been misrepresentative of the real discomfort with the quarantine measures themselves. The outrage we see misrepresented on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News (sympathetically or otherwise, depending on the outlet) is the outrage representing largely middle class, small-business demographics, and powerful organizations that leverage their immense influence and funds to disguise corporate interests behind talk of liberty (such as Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks). This reactionary opposition to any kind of organized social response taken to address an existential crisis in which millions of lives are at stake and the media’s framing of the difficulties of the loss of work and quarantine as being equivalent to the reactionary denialists and callous calls for reopening whatever the cost, the situation has been dire. We can make out the boundaries of what kind of social institutions our culture considers normal and acceptable impositions on life and liberty, and what this culture considers “unnatural”, exceptional impositions.
For those groups protesting the lockdown in response to pandemic, this coordination of government and private institutions has clearly stepped over a line in the sand. There is some legitimate criticism to be made of the lockdowns, shutdowns, and their enforcement, which have left thousands unemployed without the means to support themselves, and without sufficient government aid to help them survive, while Wall Street and corporations receive trillions of dollars. The crisis has also led many to valorize police oversight and population management in general. Meanwhile, enforcement of social distancing protocol leads to far more arrests of poor and non-white people. Furthermore, the government has increased domestic security funding and stocks up on riot gear in the expectation they will have to suppress discontent.
Our criticism of the largely right-wing demonstrations against lockdown is not that the general suspicion and anger is unfounded. Rather, the priorities expressed by many of these protestors (reopening small businesses) and the reactionary ideology they profess (many believe that the lockdown is an overreaction plotted by liberals, Democrats, even communists, or a cowardly fear of death, or a hoax entirely) are not representative of the justified suspicions, confusion, and fear of the majority of people suffering as a result of the crisis. Though no demographic study of individual protestors is available, the protests themselves are confirmed to be partially astroturfed: powerful organizations such as Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, as well as wealthy individual donors, have quietly helped to coordinate and fund the re-open protests. Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks are both members of the Save Our Country Coalition, an organization that includes among its members Stephen Moore, a conservative television commentator and currently an advisor to President Trump on how to reopen the country(). Business owners small and large continue to advocate for ending the lockdown immediately or very soon, including businesses in Philadelphia. In Texas, armed militias have partnered with business owners to keep them open.
But reliable opinion polling from PewResearch contradicts the narrative of right-wing lobbyists and the protests they help organize, who claim that “average Americans” and “workers” aren’t worried about the pandemic and want to get back to work as soon as possible. 43% of Americans have lost their job or had their wages cut in response to the pandemic. But 68% of these Americans who have lost their jobs or had their wages cut are more worried about the country reopening too quickly than they are worried about the lockdown continuing too long. Though responses differ based on political sympathies, with 45% of Republicans more concerned about reopening too quickly, the response among Republicans does not differ based on employment status, suggesting that trust of the Republican party and its associated media is a far more significant factor than employment status is predicting someone’s position on the pandemic response. Even within the conservative demographic that is more worried about the lockdown extending too long than they are about reopening too quickly, it is unlikely that the responses calling for immediate reopening or flouting any precautionary measures are representative of the 54% of Republicans worried about lockdown extending too long. The picture emerging is clear. The “average American” needs to pay rent, pay mortgage, pay for groceries, pay medical bills, and pay utilities. These peoples’ skepticism and anger about reopening is real and legitimate, but they are not asking for immediate reopening or denying that the pandemic is serious. For those of us who depend on our ability to work to survive, there is no immediate alternative to employment besides government assistance that requires navigating through a tedious bureaucracy to maybe have some minimal aid parcelled out. We want help or to be able to help ourselves. We don’t want to go back to work in the middle of a serious health crisis and endanger ourselves and the people around us.
Who are these organizations funding protests and advising the government, co-opting real and pressing concerns to push for decisions that would harm those they claim to be advocating for and help only their donors? Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks are only two of many powerful, well-organized and well-funded organizations that both lobby the government and recruit from and coordinate with militant reactionaries, putting on high-profile performances and invoking language and symbolism of liberty and Americanism to give the impression that their demonstrations are accurate representations of public opinion. They mobilize their wealth and influence and claim to do so in the name of preserving liberty and opposing tyranny. But these same groups and their sympathizers are the stalwart defenders of the US prison and police systems, which together make up what is by any reasonable standard a violent attack on life and liberty unique globally both in its scale and severity. How do we make sense of demonstrations of, often armed, people who are outraged that a temporary measure has closed strip malls and chain restaurants, calling this an authoritarian imposition of a police state, but don’t sense anything wrong in the least about the enormous and unmatched police and prison systems? In normal times, the same people now passionately protesting against the closure of inessential services during a global health crisis, proudly mock, misrepresent, and present as dangerous people who protest with similar passion against a prison system that (according to the standards of the UN Human Rights Council) openly tortures, exploits, and demeans millions of American denied both the protections of citizenship and internationally recognized human rights. While the complexity of the US prison and police systems and the relative acceptability of demands to end the lockdown are largely outside the scope of this article, taking a brief look at how the prison system is responding to the crisis provides important context for understanding the apparent contradiction in priorities during a time of crisis.
Eva Contrarez is currently an inmate in Kern Valley State Prison. She has provided the author with access to her logs and permission to publish them under her name. Her account details the inconsistency in which her own prison has approached the crisis, the total lack of information provided to inmates, and the social situation behind bars that makes the implementation of even limited safety measures difficult. One of her most cutting observations is that this failure to reorganize in response to the pandemic is happening in an environment defined by its absolute and uncompromising control over the population within:
“The prisons have never hesitated to force behavioral changes on us when they felt the need, subjecting us to the worse forms of restraint that clearly crosses over into torture, severe lockdowns. Now is when we justifiably need to modify our behavior, if ever there was a time. I never thought I’d ever see the day when I advocated lockdowns. It’s a different world.”
Prisons are defined by their containment of and control over prisoners, so why is it that in a time when containment and control over a population is more necessary than ever, they are unable to organize a coherent response? Even most people who see no problem at all with the prison system take for granted that prisons are not managed for the benefit of the inmates. The rehabilitative mandate assigned to prisons is almost universally disregarded, and advocates for the maintenance or expansion of the prison system are just as likely as prison abolitionists to understand the social role of the prison as fundamentally one of retributive infliction of suffering. But, even assuming a basic disregard for the well-being of inmates, prisons have plenty of reasons to take measures against a virus ravaging their facilities. The prison staff themselves are of course highly vulnerable to an outbreak, and are the most likely to introduce the virus from outside the contained environment. The lack of precautions cannot be explained particularly well by some callousness on the part of the higher prison management for the health of Correctional Officers (CO’s) interacting with inmates, as the virus would certainly make its way up the chain of command from CO’s to the Warden and Camp Administrators. And if enough CO’s got sick and couldn’t work, there is a potential for personnel shortage during a crisis situation. The last thing the prison administration wants is to be understaffed with Correctional Officers while having to suppress prisoners furious at the fact they’ve been left to die with the virus.
The risk of serious and fatal infection is much higher in prisons than in the general population. 46.7% of prisoners in the United States are over the age of 40, and 20% are over the age of 50. Prisoners have rates of chronic illness higher than the general population, especially in respect to diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and HIV (all of which significantly increase the chances of Covid-19 severity and/or fatality), but have far less access to healthcare than those outside of prisons. These factors already make the risk significantly higher. When the close quarters, poor hygiene, and culture of physical contact (that make spread all but inevitable once the virus is introduced) are taken into account, the potential for disastrous Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons is clear. There is no simple answer for why preventative measures in prisons have been so limited. Whether it is due to incompetence or priorities of an internal logic (likely some combination of both), this lack of response can only have its origins in the structures and tendencies of the prison system as it exists. The potential for incompetence and oversight within the prison system, which is responsible for people’s lives on a scale broader and in a way more direct than perhaps any other social institution, is revealing as to the position of prisons and prisoners within society.
In the interest of conciseness we cannot outline our own analyses and theories for the role of prison as an institution in our society. Suffice it to say, we assert that prison is primarily a means of population management and suppression of poor people and racialized populations — a proactive measure that contains, divides, and repurposes the most poor, desperate, unemployed populations that would otherwise be (and have historically been) a breeding ground for revolutionary sentiments and people willing to act on them. But with 6 million Americans under state supervision for non-violent crimes — the overwhelming majority of them poor and disproportionately Black, Native, and Latinx — prison funnels the poor and desperate into cages or places them under constant surveillance under threat of detainment. Beyond this, prisons make populations that would otherwise be unemployed and often depending on government aid into profitable sources of free labor, and prisons provide rich markets for companies of all kinds. 100% of able-bodied prisoners are required to work for a minimum of $0.12 an hour and a maximum of $1.15 an hour. As the 13th Amendment permits the enslavement of criminals, their being paid at all is not strictly necessary. But this meagre pay, and the higher demand among prisoners for basic necessities like soap and toilet paper, makes prisons a valuable captive market. The small amount prisoners are paid can only be spent on overpriced commissary items and payphone calls. At the very least, we claim that, whatever the purpose of the prison system’s development and continuity, its purpose is certainly not to rehabilitate the inmates or to protect the public.
A detailed, state-by-state breakdown of recorded Covid-19 cases and deaths can be found here. One of the most striking responses by prisons to the pandemic, made independently by certain states as well as by the federal government, was to begin releasing many prisoners early due to concerns about their health and general overcrowding. This is simply the easiest solution for prisons that do not want to risk presiding over many Covid-19 deaths — prison medical facilities are notoriously understaffed and undersupplied and are very unlikely to be able to effectively treat severe cases. Many deaths from the virus would not be good press for prisons, which prefer to keep what happens within their walls out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Rather than strain their resources, endanger the health of Correctional Officers and prison administration, and possibly have their internal workings put in the spotlight, they have decided to release many inmates. Specific information about the releases and granting of parole on the state and national level can be found here.
The decision to release inmates is reasonable considering the context, but it is also a decision that totally undermines the justification for so many people being imprisoned in the first place. In Arkansas, 1200 people were made immediately eligible for parole. Anderson County, Tennessee’s prison population dropped by 30%; Washington County, Oregon has released half of its prisoners. This trend holds across the country. Here in Pennsylvania, Northumberland County has released 32% of their prisoners, and Bucks County has released 30%. In Philadelphia, as of more than a month ago on April 16th, 531 inmates have been released, reducing the city’s prison population by 17%. Why were these people held to begin with? The justification for their imprisonment was that they were a danger to society, that they needed to be punished and held in cells for years, often decades, to allow our civil institutions to function properly and ensure the safety and security of law-abiding citizens. According to this line of reasoning, used to justify our enormous and powerful law enforcement and prison system in normal times, a global health crisis would seemingly increase the relevance and necessity of law enforcement. After all, this is a crisis in which our basic social life has been upturned, and funding for riot control and national security has been increased for fear of unrest. Many are newly unemployed, struggling to meet their basic expenses, and discontent with and suspicion towards the government is high.
Despite the state of social crisis in which the nominal purpose of law enforcement (to protect citizens and civic life from disturbances) would seem more justified than ever, prisoners are being released and granted parole hearings at a rate unprecedented in the modern United States. We are assured that only non-violent prisoners are being released. If these people are not enough of a danger to justify their detainment during a social crisis, what possible justification can there be for their imprisonment and torture in normal times? Similarly, police departments have reduced their operations significantly, with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) announcing in March that they are limiting their detainments to violent crime. They did not announce this change in policy voluntarily, and had only contacted the press with the details after an internal memo had been leaked to the public. This memo can be found here. The critical information regards a change in protocol away from standard detainment and processing practices:
“Effective Today (March 17, 2020), during the 4pm 12am tour,
arrests for the following offenses will be effectuated via Arrest Warrant:
- All Narcotics Offenses
- Theft from persons
- Retail Theft
- Theft from auto
- All Bench warrants
- Stolen auto
- Economic crimes (bad checks, fraud)
The internal PPD memo was drawn up by our city’s own paragon of justice, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who referred to the leak as “disrespectful” and creating “undue fear … and alarm in a time of crisis.” She apologized on behalf of the leaker, and assured us that “no one will escape accountability for the crimes they commit.” Though “Purge” trended on Twitter in Philadelphia, referencing the cynical and reactionary movie franchise that presents laws and their enforcement as the only thing standing between people and their communities turning into brutal, chaotic free-for-alls, the only notable increase in criminal activity has been an increase in shoplifting and the burglarizing of shuttered upscale businesses in Center City. Due to social media’s exaggeration of the laxness of the Covid-19 Philly Police Department protocol (in which non-violent criminals are detained on-site, have their information recorded, and warrants are prepared for later arrest), it is likely that this increase in robberies and shoplifting was the result of the vaguely publicized shift in policy rather than any inevitable result of temporarily relaxed punishment for minor crimes. Regardless, we can’t muster much sympathy for the lost inventories of Center City boutiques or Wawa franchises.
If shoplifting, vandalism, burglary, and sex work don’t present an urgent enough danger to society to warrant detainment in jails during an extended, unprecedented social crisis, it remains to be explained why one or two instances of these crimes normally leads to strict correctional supervision and court fines, and why three or four instances normally leads to spending years locked away in prison. The City of Philadelphia’s budget allocations for the 2020 fiscal year provided about $1,210,000 to the police department, the prisons, and other criminal justice operations. That’s about 24% of the City’s alloted 2020 expenditure of about $4,995,000,000. Just as it seems to increase every year, funding has been increased to $1,236,000,000 in the proposed 2021 budget. If you combine the City’s 2020 expenditure on human services, public transportation, streets and sanitation, and public health, it comes out to around $534,000,000, or around 10% of the year’s allotted spending. As the pandemic continues, we continue to be provided with glimpses into the relationships and networks necessary for normal social functioning — relationships and networks usually more obscured by our supposed status as simply rational consumers in a free market of other consumers. Does it make sense that public health has 0.3% of the city budget while police and prisons have 24%? The average person in Philadelphia does not own a 7/11 or Wawa franchise (including most of the people working in any given 7/11 or Wawa) and does not need to worry about a spike in shoplifting, but they do need to worry about their access to healthcare and hygienic public spaces. And who is it that is shoplifting? Accounting for a few kleptomaniacs who shoplift for sport, who is it that leaps at the opportunity to lift food and drinks from a convenience store once the punishment is relaxed just a bit? Why are so many people desperate enough for soft pretzels and gatorade that the only thing normally preventing them from taking it is the threat of fines and jail time? Viewed like this, to what extent are police and prisons an essential service? And if they’re essential, who are they essential to, and to what ends?
How the pandemic and the crises that rode in on its back will develop, and to what extent and in what ways they may change our social and political situation, is still to be seen. These are important times, and it has again become clear to many that history is still very much alive, still tossing and turning. Whatever the developments to come — this is an unprecedented situation in the United States, but it is not a breaking point and the American people will not spontaneously be swept into consciousness regarding their class position and the institutions that maintain it. The worst horrors, tragedies, and evils can be quietly normalized, and changes that slip in unnoticed are later taken for granted as reasonable, rational, natural, inevitable. The US prison system was one of those changes, as it grew bloated and powerful during the economic and social crises of the 1970s and 80s and is now a cornerstone of American social life. It did not announce itself as a historical event or a change in governance or an urgent; it slid in through the backdoor without making much of a fuss about the zeitgeist. As history is begrudgingly accepted as ongoing and the possibility of different worlds becomes undeniable, we need to watch closely what stories get promoted and which stories get buried in the writing of our history. Whatever explanations of causation and propositions for future trajectories are treated as self-evident or natural by those who benefited from the status quo of yesterday should not be trusted with accounting for the crisis today or implementing a solution tomorrow.
For now, in spite of the circumstances, we can celebrate the release of so many prisoners and pay attention to developments within prisons during the pandemic. As of now, testing within prisons remains slow and piecemeal. Prisons in a few states only began testing their entire inmate populations in late March, and those that have performed testing have found that most of their populations are already infected. Due to the still unclear incubation period and symptom and recovery timeline of the virus, these mass infections could result in many deaths. The Marshall Project here provides a resource for tracking the number of confirmed cases and recorded Covid-19 deaths in prisons throughout the country, and can be sorted to find state specific data. According to this resource, Pennsylvania prisons have 214 cases and 3 deaths, but 31% less testing has been done in prisons than in the state in general, and the infection rates in other prisons around the country suggest that the number of cases is likely much higher and that the death rates may soon spike as well. As the pandemic continues this is a great resource to reference for information on how the crisis in unfolding in prisons.
Author’s disclaimer: A section of this article which discussed the situation of the US prison more generally was removed by the editors for concision.