This morning I’ll be speaking, alongside Sharon Dolovich, James King, and Jane Dorotik, about court responses to COVID-19, at an event organized by UCLA Social Medicine. Thankfully, we now have a somewhat fuller picture of how litigation efforts have fared overall, which we can draw on to discuss some similarities and variations.
One of the things mindfulness has taught me is that disappointment depends on expectations. In that respect, to say that correctional policies during COVID-19 have been a disappointment reflects, perhaps, unrealistic expectations from institutions that have been unwieldy and incredibly resistant to change even at the best of times. Perhaps it’s not that unexpected that the giant machine that protects the correctional colossus from reform was overall characterized by delays, evasive maneuvers, reversals of fortune and too-little-too-late gestures. So, if one expected mass releases, the disappointment would be commensurate with the expectations.
Still, there is an objective benchmark against which to measure my disappointment: the problem is not that the releases fell short of being what I hoped they’d be–it’s that they fell short of what was needed to curb the spread of the pandemic. We don’t have to wonder what that number would be; we had assessments of individual institutions with recommendations from physicians specializing in pandemic spread. I think that now, in mid-April 2021, we can safely say that, with respect to releases, courts have failed to provide the relief they should have provided.
We have two great nationwide summaries that support this conclusion. Brandon Garrett and Lee Kovarsky’s new piece Viral Injustice is a survey of COVID-19 correctional litigation outcomes. Garrett and Kovarsky conclude:
Judges avoided constitutional holdings whenever they could, rejected requests for ongoing supervision, and resisted collective discharge—limiting such relief to vulnerable subpopulations. The most successful litigants were detainees in custody pending immigration proceedings, and the least successful were those convicted of crimes.
We draw three conclusions that bear on subsequent pandemic responses—including vaccination efforts—and incarceration more generally. First, courts avoided robust relief by re-calibrating rights and remedies, particularly those relating to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Second, court intervention was especially limited by the behavior of bureaucracies responsible for the detention function. Third, the judicial activity reflected entrenched assumptions about the danger and moral worth of prisoners that are widespread but difficult to defend. Before judges can effectively respond to pandemic risk, nonjudicial institutions will have to treat it differently than other health-and-safety threats, and judges will have to overcome their empirically dubious resistance to decarceration.Brandon L. Garrett and Lee Kovarsky, Viral Injustice
We also have an excellent summary from the Prison Policy Initiative, who concluded that overall the response was “grim”:
Lawmakers failed to reduce prison and jail populations enough to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, causing incarcerated people to get sick and die at a rate unparalleled in the general public.
However, some individual state and local policymakers took steps that stand as an example of how to release a large number of people from prison — a necessary step to ending mass incarceration. And some policy changes made during the pandemic — like eliminating cruel copays for incarcerated people — are ones we need to remember and demand that they be extended permanently.Prison Policy Initiative, The most significant criminal justice policy changes from the COVID-19 pandemic
I want to throw in a few additional issues that illuminate aspects of these legal responses:
- The PLRA, while greatly responsible for suffocating prison litigation, is not the be-all, end-all of the problem. Following Plata v. Newsom closely, I’m not sure how much of the inaction is Judge Tigar’s allegiance to the PLRA framework and how much of it is a culture of conciliatory, deferent approach and valuing “bringing everyone to the table” rather than ordering a solution. Some of this could be down to individual judicial personalities and some of this could be attributed to litigation cultures in different states or even in different counties. I think that our good fortune in the first round of Von Staich was because we were fortunate to get a panel that was deeply responsive to both the humanitarian emergency behind bars and to the geographical argument that the threat would extend to outside communities.
- Relatedly, I don’t think that the state vs. federal litigation was the important distinction. Nor was it class action vs. habeas corpus. I think the defining feature of the litigation is the aggressive deference to correctional authorities–giving vague, modest relief knowing that correctional officers and their lawyers can sabotage it.
- Generally speaking, and beyond CA, the staff has been the problem–from dragging their feet to actual frustration of purpose (by not testing, not reporting symptoms, and not getting vaccinated.) There has been precious little done to hold correctional officer unions accountable for their colossal leadership failures.
- In the absence of releases, there’s been a lot of reliance on bottleneck provisions–stopping admissions from jails, which put the onus on jails to handle their own pandemic issues, often without data and without accountability. The counties have been left to figure things on their own, with dramatically varying degrees of success (see my analysis of this here.)
- The advent of the vaccine made a difference, both in terms of state enthusiasm to help incarcerated populations and in the courage of courts. How vaccines played into advocacy and litigation is a complicated story, which Chad and I will analyze more thoroughly in our book-in-progress, #FESTER: Carceral Permeability and the California COVID-19 Correctional Disaster (under contract, UC Press.) In a nutshell, vaccines opened an avenue that allowed courts to avoid grappling with their paralysis regarding releases and recur to a short-term strategy to provide immediate relief from the current pandemic. And even this was not always necessary, given that many states got ahead of the courts and gave the vaccines.
- The most notable aspect of the deference/reluctance to do more for prison and jail populations was the prevalence of zero-sum games of deservedness (“grandma before inmates!”), which ignored obvious implications of geography and epidemiology: the idea that people in congregate settings, no matter who they are, face more risk, and that spaces that are jurisdictionally/institutionally set apart from society at large are, in fact, permeable to disease. This is going to be the main premise of #FESTER.
- The deservedness argument posed some difficulties in advocacy and organizing: does making the argument that jail populations are largely presumed innocent introduce the deservedness scale, which as Kovarsky and Garrett show was at play in the overall picture of relief? And, how to advocate short-term for vaccination while advocating long-term for releases?