Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?

As coronavirus cases mounted in Louisiana, incarcerated people often had no access to their lawyers. At several juvenile-detention centers, minors were kept in lockdown or solitary confinement, ostensibly for their protection. The mother of a sixteen-year-old boy detained in northern Louisiana told me, in April, that the facility did not respond to her e-mails and calls. “It’s been a whole month, and I don’t know if my child is dead or alive, sick or healthy,” she said. Another woman reached out to Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a local nonprofit, for help in finding her mother, who had tested positive for COVID-19 in a state prison and then been shuffled to an unknown location, where her lawyer couldn’t contact her. “WHERE IS MY MOTHER!!!??? IS SHE OK!?” she wrote, in a note that VOTE posted on social media. “That’s all we want to know. That’s it. Let me hear her voice! Anything!!!”

Crouch called her daughter Tae (left) from the Jefferson Parish jail. “I’ve got to get out of here before this virus gets me,” she said. Tae worried about her mother’s transfer to Orleans Parish, and eventually got in touch with Thomas Frampton, a public-interest lawyer and a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Ordinarily, Frampton would have been on campus, teaching Legal Research and Writing to first-year students. But his class now met on Zoom, and he was in New Orleans, where he lives part time. Frampton started looking through court records and found that Crouch had a four-year-old material-witness warrant out for her arrest in Orleans Parish.

Material-witness warrants allow law enforcement to arrest and jail someone who hasn’t been accused of a crime—and may even be the victim of the crime in question—in order to insure her testimony. At the time, the Orleans Parish D.A., Leon Cannizzaro, routinely jailed domestic-violence and sexual-assault survivors as material witnesses, to secure their testimony against their alleged abusers. (In 2017, the A.C.L.U. and Civil Rights Corps sued the D.A.’s office over the practice, and the case is pending in federal district court.) Frampton found that, in 2016, an Orleans Parish prosecutor had requested a material-witness warrant for Crouch, to compel her testimony in the trial of a man accused of shooting one of her friends. The defendant was acquitted, rendering the warrant moot. Still, the D.A.’s office pressed a judge to keep it open. (A spokesperson told me that the warrant was the result of a “clerical error”; the prosecutor had intended to request a contempt-of-court warrant, which is more commonly held open after a trial.)

Instead of setting Crouch free, deputies at the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office detained her for two more nights, then sent her to the Orleans Parish jail, called the Justice Center. Frampton worried that, with the courts closed, securing Crouch’s release could prove unusually complicated. Her bond had been set at a hundred thousand dollars. On March 19th, Frampton visited her at the jail. By the time he arrived, she’d fallen ill: her body ached and she had a bad cough. Hand sanitizer is banned in many jails and prisons. (Administrators argue that inmates will drink it, or use it to start fires.) Frampton stuffed an antiseptic wipe through an opening in the glass divider so that Crouch could disinfect her hands after wiping her runny nose.

Activists were heartened by the initial wave of mass releases this spring. But optimism gave way, for some families, to panic and indignation, as many facilities delayed reducing their populations and instituting safeguards, and coronavirus outbreaks began. At the end of March, by the time New York City released some six hundred and fifty people from Rikers Island, its main jail, the infection rate there was already seven times higher than in the city’s general population. The jail’s chief physician called it “a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen.” In Chicago, the Cook County Jail, which is fighting a judge’s social-distancing order, has now recorded nine hundred cases among detainees and staff, and ten deaths. (One of the staff deaths was that of a sheriff’s deputy at a suburban courthouse.) Detained men held strikes to protest the lack of safety precautions, and placed handmade signs in their windows reading “Help us, don’t let us die.”

For those in New Orleans, the pandemic brought to mind how, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Orleans Parish jail. As the storm descended, many staff members fled, leaving behind some sixty-five hundred people—including minors—locked up without food, water, or ventilation. Gina Womack, who runs Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, told me, “People in prisons, especially kids, were an afterthought.” Although there was no official death count after the storm, Human Rights Watch later reported that more than five hundred incarcerated people were not accounted for; many who survived described beatings by staff and cellmates, and infections from contaminated floodwaters. According to a report by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, when detained children were finally evacuated, a few days later, on floating mattresses, some were so hungry that they tried to scoop up bits of food drifting by in the water. (“One boy found some dog snacks,” the report read.) In the storm’s aftermath, Womack felt that the city “never took the necessary steps to divest from prisons, and invest in our children and our communities.” As a result, when COVID-19 arrived, people in the Orleans Parish jail were “sitting ducks.”

Along with other activists, Womack attended Zoom strategy sessions to discuss mass releases, and encouraged parents with incarcerated children to call politicians and the press. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition sent more than three hundred letters to elected officials. “This virus may not be as visible as floodwaters, but it’s just as deadly,” Sade Dumas, who runs the group, said. The city initially resisted, but, on March 26th, the sheriff sent a letter to criminal-court judges, asking them to “give consideration to releases, even on a temporary basis, of any non-violent individuals without a prior criminal history.” The D.A. also stopped opposing most bond reductions and releases. By the last week of March, the Orleans Parish jail population had dropped by nearly a quarter, to below eight hundred, its lowest level in decades. The D.A.’s office wrote to me that “only a tiny fraction of those still inside have been jailed for non-violent offenses.” This was a remarkable shift, one that Frampton had assured me wouldn’t happen “until hell froze over.”

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, meanwhile, set up a panel that would review the cases of certain people in state prisons seeking temporary release. Frampton took on the case of Candice Bowie, who contracted COVID-19 in Louisiana’s Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, in April, when she was eight months pregnant. Some eighty-five per cent of the women at the prison had tested positive for the virus, and two inmates in her housing block had died. She was scheduled to give birth by C-section. Frampton successfully lobbied for her release. On May 4th, he and Kelly Orians, who works for the First 72+, the organization that eases reëntry into society, filled a rental car with balloons, created a makeshift divider out of duct tape and a plastic tarp, and drove to pick Bowie up. (When they arrived, the guard mistook them for morticians.) On her way to the hospital to deliver her son, the next day, Bowie called me. “I didn’t want to give birth with a prison guard beside me, but I’d mentally prepared to harden my heart to it,” she said. “Now I’m excited . . . I wasn’t trying to die in there!”

Kisha Edwards, who works for the First 72+, told me that those who are released still face circumstances that are “surreal and devastating.” Jobs, especially for those with criminal records, are almost nonexistent. To receive food stamps, you need an I.D., but the office that issues such documents is closed. Many homeless shelters, which often house the newly released, are also closed. Edwards had a client who was let out after ten years in prison but whose mother was hesitant to take him in, for fear of infection. He found a job with a small business, but got laid off soon afterward because of the shutdown. “So now he’s homeless,” she said. Released parents face additional hurdles. “Mothers want to be reunited with their kids,” Edwards said. “But if they can’t get a job that means they can’t get a place to live, which means they can’t get their kids back.”

Many people risk ending up on the streets. Steven Berrier, a sixty-year-old man who served thirty-five years in prison, was released late one night in mid-April, with a pair of prison jeans, a blue shirt, and sneakers a half-size too small. “I had eleven dollars and a bus ticket,” he told me. With no family to take him in, he spent the first night sleeping on a bus-stop bench. A few days later, he found out about the First 72+. Edwards took him to Walmart and bought him some new clothes, a cell phone (which made him feel like a “baby with a new toy”), and a face mask. He’s been self-quarantining in a hotel room outside of New Orleans that the group rented for him for two months. “To have assistance and a helping hand, that’s really something special,” he said. Still, some nights he lies in bed worrying about what will happen when his time there runs out. “Nobody’s hiring in this pandemic, and you can’t mingle or meet people, so I’m lost out here,” he told me. “I just want to earn an honest living, and have a roof over my head—those aren’t wants, those are needs,” he said. “People have killed themselves over things like this.”

Instead of setting Crouch free, deputies in Jefferson Parish detained her for two more nights, then sent her to the Orleans Parish jail. “I don’t even know why I’m here anymore,” she said.Photograph by William Widmer for The New Yorker

When Thomas Frampton visited Crouch at the Orleans Parish jail, he confronted an officer, pointing out that the warrant on which she was being held was four years old and, he believed, illegitimate. “I absolutely created a scene,” he told me. A sheriff’s deputy called a judge, who agreed that Crouch should be released. “That’s a lesson of the moment—that people are seeing the urgency, and that a whole range of actors stepped up to insure Ms. Crouch’s release,” Frampton said. Shortly after 5 P.M. on March 19th, Crouch walked out of the jail and asked a stranger if she could borrow her cell phone to call her family. “My kids started to cry when I got home,” Crouch told me. “I made them baked macaroni and barbecued chicken.”

Crouch felt lucky to be free. But she had grown sicker: her aches and shivers had increased, and she had lost her sense of smell. A few days after her release, she found out about a local drive-through clinic that did COVID-19 testing, but to get a test one had to have a state-issued I.D. Her arresting officers had confiscated hers and forgotten to return it. Her daughter Tae drove her there anyway, and they waited for an hour, but Crouch was not able to obtain a test. At home, she tried to self-quarantine in her bedroom. She quickly realized that, when you care for young children and an elderly parent in a small house, “it’s not happening.” The week after Crouch’s release, she told me that her toddler had a fever. “So my baby’s sick, and I don’t want my mama to get sick,” she said.

When she was released, the parish jail was still full of people who couldn’t afford bail. At the end of March, according to the Orleans Public Defenders, more than two hundred people were still being held “on felonies that are NOT crimes of violence.” A month later, more than a hundred people in the jail had tested positive for COVID-19, and two sheriff’s deputies had died. State and federal prisons followed a similar trajectory. In mid-May, according to the Times, seven of the top ten case clusters in the nation were in prisons and jails, including Marion Correctional Institution, in Ohio (2,439 cases), and the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, in Tennessee (1,284). At Oakdale, in Louisiana, where the first federal prisoner died from COVID-19, the death toll has now reached at least eight. The A.C.L.U. unsuccessfully sued the prison, seeking the release of vulnerable people. “Imagine if someone sick with COVID-19 came into your home and sealed the doors and windows behind them,” the complaint read. “That is what the Oakdale federal detention centers have just done to the over 1,800 human beings currently detained there, where a COVID-19 outbreak is rampant, social distancing is impossible, and no one detained can leave.” Recently, Louisiana prison officials revealed a controversial plan: incarcerated people across the state who tested positive for COVID-19 would be transferred to units at Angola and the Allen Correctional Center, which critics worry will cause large outbreaks in those facilities.

Local organizers are ramping up their fight. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition is pressing for an agreement from police to reduce arrests. Court Watch NOLA, a watchdog group, is pushing for court proceedings, now held on Zoom, to remain accessible to the public. Bruce Reilly, at VOTE, has been encouraging his staff to use the trauma of the moment to effect lasting reforms, including an end to incarceration for people too poor to pay court fees, less zealous use of solitary confinement, and fairer parole policies. “We need to make sure that when people realize the house is on fire—when they’re looking for firemen, for water, for a way out—that they know we’re standing right there, ready to help,” he said. Frampton has been thinking about “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein’s book from 2007, in which she argues that large-scale catastrophes—wars, floods, terror attacks—tend to favor “disaster capitalists,” who use chaos to enact policies that serve private enterprise. He reminded me that one of Klein’s case studies was New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina: in a short period of time, a range of schools, hospitals, and public-housing complexes were privatized, at the expense of the poorest residents. “The city was fundamentally remade,” Frampton said. “I’m really hoping that this moment can be like ‘Shock Doctrine’ in reverse—a chance to build on the growing consensus that our current model for criminal justice needs to be entirely rethought, since it isn’t making our communities any safer or healthier.”

Roslyn Crouch has a similar hope for her city, but she wonders how many incarcerated people will die before any such changes take place. If she ever crosses paths with the Orleans Parish D.A., she knows what she will tell him. “I want to thank you for getting me out of the dog cage,” she said. “But, Lord, there are other things for you to worry about right now, instead of harassing people for petty-ass shit.”

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