There’s a lot in the news right now. Here are some of the most important stories of the last few weeks.
Despite the fact that the Georgia Department of Public Health as well as the jail’s own medical service provider have confirmed a massive outbreak, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill denies the virus exists within the jail’s walls, and refuses to protect the people in its custody. When 72-year-old Randolph Mitchell began to experience symptoms in May, he was told “they do not test inmates.” (The Appeal) SCHR, along with ACLU and ACLU of Georgia, filed a federal lawsuit asking a federal judge to intervene. (WABE)
The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in our state’s overcrowded prisons. 33 incarcerated people and one staff member have died from COVID-19. As conditions in Georgia prisons continue to worsen, heightened violence and staff shortages exacerbate an already dire public health emergency. A violent uprising in Ware State Prison over the weekend led advocates including former corrections officers and loved ones of people in Georgia prisons to protest at the State Board of Pardons and Paroles Thursday. Another rally is set for Saturday, Aug. 8 at 1 p.m.
This week, the United States Supreme Court split, (WaPo) allowing the Orange County Jail to evade the requirements of a federal judge’s injunction compelling the jail to allow its residents space to social distance, provide adequate soap for handwashing, and isolate and provide testing to symptomatic individuals. Justice Sotomayor was joined by Justice Ginsberg in her dissent: “It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons. That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm.”
Saferia Johnson was only 36 when she died from COVID-19 while incarcerated in Florida’s Coleman prison. She requested a compassionate release from the women’s low-security work camp, citing the very real risk to her life posed by her severe asthma, so that she might live to see her sons grow up. The warden refused. Now, her mother will raise the two boys. “This never should have happened.” (Miami Herald)
San Quentin is now the country’s worst COVID-19 hotspot — surpassing Ohio’s Marion Correctional Facility, as of August 6. On May 31, 121 infected men were transferred from other facilities. The administration failed to contain the resulting spread. Since then, over 2200 people have been infected — over half the prison’s population — and 25 have died, 11 of them on California’s Death Row. Jarvis Masters, who has lived on the Row since 1990, in an audio interview: “The news started putting it out there. TV, radio news, they began to stress me out. 100,150,700. I couldn’t imagine these numbers. 1000,1500. At some point, you begin to think, no matter what I do, this is not something I can avoid. I had already imagined I was going to let it go through me, as a meditation way of thinking about it. Then it came.”
“The message I’m getting is that you would rather see us dead than let us go free.” (Insider)
Alan Beisel was 74 years old when he was chained and crowded on to that ill-fated transfer to San Quentin. When he became critically ill, he was moved to a Bay area hospital, where his family was refused the same information and Zoom access other families had to their dying loved ones. Re:store Justice has published guides for knowing your rights when you or your loved ones are transferred to outside medical care.
Activist Adnan Kahn memorialized his deceased friend and all the people dying in San Quentin: “Sadly, most people won’t care about my friend’s passing. His incarceration gave the state legitimacy to deny him his humanity. As a society, we accept punishment and torture as the only exchange for breaking a law.” (The Appeal)
Eric William Warner, known as “E,” died on July 25, 2020. He was 57 years old. He leaves behind a large community of people who loved him, both inside and outside the walls of San Quentin. (Mourning Our Losses)
The DOJ hadn’t executed a single person in nearly 17 years until last month, when they carried out three executions in a single week, amid challenges to their legality (NYT). The first, Danny Lee, was executed after being strapped down for four hours. The family of Lee’s victims sued to stay the execution, since they would not be able to attend during the pandemic. As do many families of murder victims, they opposed the execution. But they still wanted to be there: “We wanted to be present to say, ‘This is not being done in Sarah and Nancy’s name.’” (The Marshall Project)
There are four more federal executions scheduled in the next two months. The first is Navajo Lezmond Mitchell, on August 26. Mitchell was sentenced to death against the wishes of the Navajo Nation. The victims’ family also opposes the execution. “I don’t think he should die. It’s not my place or humanity’s place, it’s only God’s place,” one descendent said in an interview. “There’s no reason another person needs to die because two people were hurt. That’s not justice, it’s revenge.” (The Marshall Project)
A Supreme Court ruling recognized half the land in Oklahoma as belonging to its Indigenous people, flooding both tribal and federal courts with state criminal cases. (New York Times)
Men on federal Death Row wait to find out who’s next. (The Marshall Project)
Last week, a panel of federal judges unanimously vacated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s federal death sentence. In a “special administrative measure” of solitary confinement, Tsarnaev, who was 19 at his sentencing, is banned from communicating with anyone except those whom he knew before his imprisonment, and in any language but English.
“In a different world, or even just in a different country, the aspiration stated in Thompson’s opinion—that of being “fairly tried and lawfully punished”—would match the argument that Tsarnaev is too young to be condemned. It could mean that even a person who has committed a horrible crime may have the chance at restoring dignity and meaning to his life. But in the U.S. in 2020, it means only that his bare physical existence can be preserved.” (Masha Gessen for The New Yorker)
Another death trial for the surviving younger of the two brothers who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing would do more harm than good, creating more trauma and seeking “a form of justice that no court can deliver.” (Boston Globe)
In other arbitrary federal applications of “justice”:
Under a provision of the First Step Act, thousands of people have successfully sought relief from extreme drug sentences. Unfortunately, even those qualified for resentencing face the luck of the judicial draw. (New York Times)
In a striking set of 17 new visuals, the Prison Policy Initiative illustrates the systemic racism inherent in every level of the criminal legal system, from policing to reentry.