Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?

On March 14th, Roslyn Crouch, a mother of twelve, left her house in New Orleans to stock up on toilet paper and canned goods, and didn’t return. Crouch, who is forty-two, with slender braids down to her knees, had been feeling anxious about the spread of the coronavirus. At home, she cared for her elderly mother, and for a half-dozen children, including a son with sickle-cell anemia, a blood disorder. She herself had chronic bronchitis, and worried that it put her at risk. Many people in her neighborhood lacked access to high-quality medical care. (Black residents of Louisiana have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic; they make up about thirty per cent of the state’s population, but account for almost sixty per cent of documented deaths from the virus.) She thought, This is some serious stuff. After scrolling through a few too many coronavirus stories on her phone that Saturday morning, she got dressed, spritzed herself with her favorite perfume, A Thousand Wishes, and drove to a dollar store with her two-year-old son, Kyi, to buy shelter-in-place supplies.

On the way, Crouch failed to stop at a stop sign in Jefferson Parish and was pulled over by the police. She was then arrested for a string of petty crimes, including driving without proper registration and with a stolen license plate that police valued at twenty-five dollars. The most serious charge resulted from a nine-year-old warrant for possession of marijuana. As Crouch was put in the back of a police car, with Kyi, she pleaded with the arresting officers to call her daughter Tae, who worked as a security guard. Tae sped across the Mississippi River, arriving just in time to pry her sobbing little brother from the police car and prevent him from being turned over to child-protective services. “I call him Hip Baby, because he’s attached to my mom’s hip,” Tae told me. She took Kyi home, but it was “hell on earth trying to tame him without her.” The cops drove Crouch to the Jefferson Parish jail.

In late March, Governor John Bel Edwards announced that Louisiana had the fastest-growing coronavirus infection rate in the world. According to state reports at the end of last year, Louisiana also had the highest incarceration rate in the country. The pandemic posed an immediate threat in the state’s jails, where cells are crowded and poorly sanitized, and people frequently cycle in and out of custody. Since 2013, the main jail in Orleans Parish has been under a consent decree for what the Department of Justice called “dangerous and unacceptable” conditions, including “inadequate medical care.” Prisons, too, present a contagion risk; they have less rapid turnover than jails, but staff come and go, and large populations and underfunded health services make outbreaks hard to contain. Ben Smith, who served thirteen years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, remembers how quickly infections passed through the prison each year. Lacking accessible treatment, men devised remedies using instant soup, garlic, oranges, and peppermint leaves. Smith—who now works for the First 72+, a nonprofit that helps people adjust to life after incarceration—worried about his friends who were still inside, among them an older man with Stage IV colon cancer who was nearing parole. “Imagine a prisoner serving a life sentence, with age on him. If he got the virus, would they choose to give him a ventilator?” Smith asked. “It’s a very, very contagious virus. Now you could be sentenced to death.”

“I didn’t come all this way to do work.”

“Many of us have friends or family members who are incarcerated during this pandemic and worry if they will be infected or in some near future bring the virus into our community or home. Incarceration is a reality and some who are there makes us safe but at some point we will have to contend with this problem”. Part II follows

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