The Pains of COVID-19 Imprisonment

This is a quick preview of the ideas presented in chapter 3 of our book in progress Fester: Carceral Permeability and the California COVID-19 Correctional Disaster (under contract with UC Press.)

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Numerous factors coalesced to make the 1950s and 1960s fertile grounds for ethnographic prison research. The work of Erving Goffman and others, who viewed prisons as a unique psychological and sociological setting; the relatively fresh horrors of Nazism, fascism, and comunism; and the still-lax approach to research ethics on vulnerable populations (manifested in the controversies around Milgram’s Obedience to Authority study and Zimbardo et al.’s Stanford Prison Experiment) resulted in an explosion of works on prison society, staff-population interactions, and the prison economy. , In the late 1950s, Goffman coined the term “total institution” to capture the absolute subjection of the person to the environment, beginning with the branding rituals that turned the person into an “inmate” and continuing with the clandestine economy, adaptation strategies, alliances and conflicts, and more aspects of prison life. In 1965, a fundamental volume of works in this vein came out, edited by Johnston, Savitz and Wolfgang, titled The Sociology of Punishment and Correction. Many works in the volume were reprints of penology classics, such as Donald Clemmer’s concept of “prisonization” – socialization to life inside. Among these works was a short but fundamental text by criminologist Gresham Sykes titled The Pains of Imprisonment. This was an excerpt from Sykes’ book The Society of Captives, based on his ethnography at a New Jersey Prison.

As Victor Shammas explains in a retrospective, Sykes was far from the first observer of the misery and suffering inflicted on residents of prisons and jails; author Charles Dickens and journalist Henry Mayhew extensively illuminated the anguish of incarceration in the 19th century. Sykes’ effort was important in that it identified that prisons did far more to their residents than merely deprive them of their liberty, which was merely the first of five “pains of imprisonment.”

Sykes’ description of the first pain, Deprivation of Liberty, went beyond the obvious limitation to the confines of the prison (and control measures like cells, checkpoints, and passes.) He included the dissolution of bonds to family and friends due to restrictions or difficulties associated with receiving visitors, sending and receiving mail, or placing telephone calls.

The second pain Sykes identified, Deprivation of Goods and Services, consisted of a decline in the material standard of living compared to life on the outside: unpaid or very poorly compensated labor, few personal possessions, and a decline in the quality of shelter, clothing, diet, and healthcare.

Today, Sykes’ third pain, the Deprivation of Heterosexual Relationships, reads as somewhat antiquated; Sykes’ understanding and framing of homosexual relationships and intimacy behind bars was based on limited assumptions. Nevertheless, his sensitivity to the notion that involuntary celibacy could create emotional, psychological, and physical problems in the inmate population was prescient. He believed an involuntary loss of sexual relations produced tension, anxiety, and a worsened self-image for inmates.

The fourth pain, the Deprivation of Autonomy, consisted of denying prisoners the ability to make even the most basic decisions about their daily life, such as when and what food to eat, when and how bodily functions should be taken care of, and when and how to move within the restricted confines of the prison. Sykes believed the loss of autonomy was harmful because it reduced inmates to a child-like state through a series of public humiliations and forced acts of deference.

Finally, the Deprivation of Security, according to Sykes, consisted of subjecting prisoners to a violent, unsafe environment, in which they could be subjected to assaults, sexual victimization, substance abuse, and disease.

Sykes’ typology of pains yielded a long and fertile strain of criminological literature. Later commentators added considerable nuance to his analysis and, in some cases, modified his findings. One notable example is Benjamin Fleury Steiner and Jamie Longazel’s The Pains of Mass Imprisonment, which offers a mass-incarceration-era update rife with awareness of the increased salience of problems exacerbated by overcrowding and racial injustices. Much has changed, they argued in 2010, since Sykes conducted his ethnography in the mid-1950s, beginning with the scope of the system: At the time of Sykes’s research, there were approximately 250,000 prisoners in the U.S. (state and federal) prisons and jails. As of 2010, there were more than 2.2 million, that is, just about nine times as many prisoners. But there were other changes, which they lay out in page 8:

As opposed to focusing on more traditional penological goals such as rehabilitation, the prerogative of prisons today is aggressive incapacitation. In this way, the deprivation of liberty has been exacerbated in the contemporary era, amounting to what can more accurately be described as containment. • Beyond having to endure what amounts to forced poverty (i.e., the deprivation of goods and services), today’s prisoners must cope with a massive for-profit prison industry that routinely exploits them for financial profits by, for example, making them engage in low-wage labor under often dangerous conditions. • Sykes’s extensive observations of the New Jersey State Prison and interviews with those imprisoned there illustrate a lack of access to sexual relationships; yet today with the recent explosion of the number of women behind bars, we have witnessed a crisis of prisoner sexual abuse as female prisoners find themselves subjected to widespread sexualized coercion by their male captors. Whereas being deprived of autonomy once entailed being reduced to the “weak, helpless, dependent status of childhood” (ibid., p. 75), mass imprisonment has wrought a far more aggressive focus on the isolation of exorbitant numbers of prisoners in the brutal conditions of solitary confinement, utterly stripping away the humanity of many prisoners. • The potentially violent behavior of other prisoners once encompassed the deprivation of security, but today is compounded as prisoners are subjected to numerous forms of prison guard brutality.

This changed landscape of incarceration led Fleury-Steiner and Longazel to an updated inventory of imprisonment pains: Containment, exploitation, coercion, isolation, and brutality. But a critical look at Steiner and Longazel’s inventory of oppression and suffering, supported by their comparative table, reveals that the roots of these deprivations were already present in Sykes’ time. This struck me as an important point as we were cataloguing the hundreds of reports we received about how COVID-19 was experienced in California prisons. Listening to recordings, reading emails, and participating in phone and Zoom calls with incarcerated people and their families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—sometimes several a day—showed us that COVID-19 merely exposed the neglect, abuse, fear and deprivation already rampant in the system and its horrors are manifestations of these old pains and difficulties. Following Fleury-Steiner and Longazel, we provide an updated inventory, including the parallels to today’s situation:

The Pains of Imprisonment (1958) The Pains of Mass Imprisonment (2010) The Pains of COVID Imprisonment (2021)
deprivation of liberty containment quarantine
deprivation of goods and services exploitation organizational and medical collapse
deprivation of heterosexual relationships coercion deprivation and erosion of all relationships
deprivation of autonomy isolation isolation, quarantine, misinformation, fearmongering
deprivation of security brutality medical neglect and abuse; staff misinformation and noncompliance; retaliation
Sources: Sykes 1958; Fleury and Longazel 2010; Aviram and Goerzen 2021

The deprivation of liberty, which became containment in the era of mass incarceration, was ground zero of what John Witt refers to in American Contagions as the “quarantinist state.” Administrative unwillingness to release people, court prevarication on transfers and releases, playing Tetris with human lives, the bottleneck of the jails, and the pipelines to ICE, all played a role in this quarantine system. Also to be filed here were the forced moves within the prison – the various isolation strategies which conflated punishment with medical need.

The deprivation of goods and services, which morphed into large-scale economic exploitation, manifested itself in the total administrative collapse of the prison. We include in this category the ineptitude of healthcare at the highest levels, the Chino transfer fiasco, the absence of PPE, the absurd preventions on sanitizing chemicals, the collapse of the sanitation and kitchen system, and the spillover of COVID healthcare ineptitude into the realm of general provision of healthcare. We also include here the disrespectful approach to the dying and the dead and the humiliation and mortification of their families.

What Sykes saw as deprivation of heterosexual relationships (and Fleury-Steiner and Longazel argued became sexual coercion by staff and residents in overcrowded facilities) we see as morphing into a deprivation of all consensual relationships: the ban on phone calls, the problems contacting loved ones and informing them of what was happening, the difficulties faced by lawyers, advocates, volunteers, and activists to get a sense of what was occurring and to help.

The deprivation of autonomy, the ultimate mass incarceration example of which is isolation in solitary confinement, became a systemwide regime of isolation and quarantine. The inability to govern one’s fate manifested itself in the transfer system (housing COVID positive and negative people together), the structural and architectural barriers to even the most basic forms of self-protection and social distancing, and the disciplinary system backing up these contagion-producing practices. All of this was amplified through a systemwide atmosphere of misinformation and fearmongering fomented by staff and tacitly approved by high command.

Finally, the deprivation of security, which at its extreme end in mass incarceration becomes brutality, was in evidence everywhere as massive medical neglect, widely visible staff noncompliance and COVID denialism, and a system of retaliation (via transfer threats) against those who pursued political and legal action against the prison system.

In Fester, we present this framework and walk our readers through each of these five pains of imprisonment not through our own words, but through the words of the people who experienced this first hand–incarcerated people and their families, as well as prison workers.

Shelter In Place: A Quarantine Mystery Novel, Chapter 1

shelter in place

1
John

It was only after he was halfway to the restaurant that John realized he had forgotten his mask. The string he tied around his middle finger to remind him was still tightly looped around the finger, untethered from the memory it was supposed to pull. The deliveries themselves would be fine; John wore a helmet and could wear it on his deliveries with the face shield down. What the clients would think, and then tweet about, tagging his boss, was a different story.

Not that John had developed fervent loyalty to FoodFairy in the two weeks since he had joined their august ranks; It wouldn’t have been his first choice of a career under any other circumstances. But after a couple of weeks at home, no prospects for the near or far future, and a growing stream of worrisome stories on the Chronicle of Higher Education, he could not sit on his hands hoping for some miracle to happen. The college was closed; his course wrapped up in the previous quarter; and none of his students, who were not exactly living in the lap of luxury, could be expected to angrily march across campus, surrounding the empty administration building (the Dean sent him the proverbial pink slip from the comfort of his St. Francis Wood mansion) demanding that his adjunct contract be renewed.

Ceci FaceTimed him to figure out what to do. They quietly and quickly went through a list of his skills. The problem was that everything he knew how to do—tutor people for their SATs, house-sit people’s pets, to mention just two–was not in particular demand because of quarantine. It was actually Fabian who came up with the delivery idea. “You ride every day anyway and you like it,” he said, “and this way you get to hang out outside, instead of getting bored at home.” The inflection on the last three words was perhaps a bit pointed, probably at Ceci; John regretted that they were not all together at this time, then remembered that his new job required special precautions and was grateful not to put them at risk. He and Ceci were much better friends than spouses, anyway, and Fabian was old enough that he didn’t need his hand held through the crisis. He was a much cooler boy than John had been at his age, and remarkably well adjusted; he could surf, skate, and play guitar, and even though he had lots of friends, they hadn’t turned him mean or cynical. Yet.

Given the alarmingly rising unemployment rate, and John’s apprehension about “being a good fit,” whatever that meant, he was surprised to have nailed the FoodFairy gig right away. The folks he worked with were a nice bunch, though he hardly saw them; most of his day was spent moving around the empty city, ambulating through quiet streets and boarded stores, entering the belly of a different beast every time to retrieve food, and heading off to deliver it to invisible, anxious customers.

The app—proprietary! Disruptive! Innovative! Designed to take the food delivery business to the next level!—was almost unnecessary for him, as he knew the city quite well. He lived in Mission Terrace, which looked just like the Mission in its pre-gentrification time. John considered himself a gentle, kind gentrifier, and quelled the social critic in his belly. After the divorce, which happened when Fabian was little and John was fairly gainfully employed, he managed to outmaneuver the young, shiny South Bay tech workers and land a small rent-protected house, paying a recession-set monthly rent that his adjunct salary from three different places barely covered. The neighbors were lovely; a million small businesses, including his favorite Salvadorean resturant, lined Mission Street within two blocks of his home. Best of all, within a comfortable trip on Ocean Avenue, over near Ocean Beach, lived Ceci and Fabian; Fabian, who was now thirteen, sometimes rode his skateboard between his parents’ homes.

The restaurants were still sprinkled throughout the city, though many closed their brick-and-mortar facades and operated from back kitchens. The food was the same; menus had shrunk, but people were ordering in a frenzy, and favorites were a comfort. Lots of pizza, lots of dumplings, lots of fries—the smells enveloped him even though the food was safely nestled behind his back—and lots of Indian curries. When he was off his shift, John would read articles about people rediscovering cooking and baking and making staples from scratch, but given how busy his day was, he couldn’t fathom who was doing it. What really stunned him was the newly discovered penchant for delivered homemade cocktails; John detested those deliveries, feeling like the princess and the pea as he drove gingerly up and down hilly Dolores street hoping not to spill any of the precious ingredients, separately packed for the customers to mix at home for an added sense of agency. He chuckled about it now, as he opened his throttle, ascended Monterey, and appreciated the glorious day and the strange times that placed him outdoors for much of his workday.

John parked the scooter and backed it neatly into the curb in front of Dumpling King. Keeping his helmet on, so as not to alarm the staff, he walked in. Millie, the owner’s daughter, raised her eyes toward him; he could not discern a smile under her mask. He said, “How ya doin?”

“Crazy today,” Millie said. “But these two, every day at noon, like clockwork. Are you here for the same ones?”

“Yeah,” said John. “The two regulars, the one for Persia and the one for Baden.”

Millie picked up two plastic bags emblazoned with Thank You Thank You Thank You in glaring red letters. She quickly checked them both (to make sure there was soy sauce and vinegar, John assumed) and handed them to him. She lifted the one in her left hand a bit. “This is the one for Persia: the two orders of bao, Mongolian beef, dried green beans with mock chicken, rice. The egg rolls and chow mein are for Baden.”

“How do these people not get sick of eating the exact same thing every single day?” asked John.

“Beats me,” said Millie. “But they are keeping us in business. We’re down to just the family cooking now. As far as I’m concerned, they can go on ordering the same dishes for the rest of their days.”

John nodded, smiled—she probably couldn’t see his smile through the chin guard—and carried the food outside. He opened the Velcro attachment to the cooler and placed both bags, side by side, in it. The bigger lunch rush wasn’t happening yet, or maybe the boss did a less equitable division of labor. Tip-wise, it didn’t matter, he remembered as he slid the key into the ignition; the boss decided early on that, as long as this was going on, they would share in the tips. The app—miraculous! Customizable! Considerate!—did the calculus automatically before they got paid. This was advertised to customers looking to assuage their guilt as “taking care of our community of committed drivers.”

John flipped on the kill switch, squeezed the brakes, and pressed the start button. The scooter responded with a pleasant hum. He pushed any thoughts of minimum wage, exploitation, and the growing sensation of bitterness further into his belly and turned into the road. First stop would be Baden. The new protocol required them to leave the food outdoors and text the owners. Some delivery workers rang the bell; in the first two or three days, John did that instinctively, then considered that, even with his gloves on, this could unnerve customers. He parked the scooter under the house, placed the bag in front of the door and, as he expected, was greeted by no one. He texted the number listed on the app–though the boss encouraged it, he didn’t have it in him to add a food emoji or even the obligatory exclamation mark–and headed back to the road.

The next stop was the house on Persia. Here, too, he had never seen a soul, and never received a reply to his text. Ascending the obligatory San Francisco steps, he thought he’d seen movement in the bay window—a flicker of a face. The door had a stained-glass feature, perhaps an orchid, and through the colorful, textured panels he could discern a figure moving in the living room. He whipped out his phone, and within a second realized the text would not be necessary, because through the stained-glass flower he saw the face of a woman.

Half a face, actually—the woman was wearing a mask inside the house. Her eyes were dark and large, and they seemed to communicate something—sadness?—as a reply to what was likely John’s puzzled expression. To each their own, he thought; battles were raging on his neighborhood’s social media page about the appropriate etiquette for mask wearing, running, jogging, shopping, you name it. Boomers bickered with millennials; millennials bickered with boomers; and Gen-Xers like John read it all, nauseated and despaired and unable to tear themselves from it. Then the obvious explanation hit him: there was likely a sick person inside the house. The woman was taking a break from some harrowing caregiving duty to eat her lunch. She said something, muffled by the door and her mask. It took John a moment to process it as “thank you.” He smiled, said, “you’re welcome,” and walked down the stairs. His phone pinged; time to pick up chicken korma from the Mission and head over to Bernal.

As he drove up San Jose, the darkness of the tunnel and the danger of Muni cables called his attention. But as he emerged from the tunnel and rode into Guerrero, the image of the woman floated back to his mind. The amount of food could have a simple explanation: there was more than one healthy person in the house clamoring for dumplings and main courses. But he was surprised that someone caring for a sick relative did not order plain soup. The reports he’d heard were that severely ill people could not manage a thing and lost their appetite; yes, that could be it. Yet there was something about the woman’s expression that flew in the face of this explanation. Something about the sadness in her eyes—not sadness, exactly. Fear, maybe? He turned right into 18th Street, moved into the curb and killed the switch. Looking at his phone, he saw that the order was made by a Phoenix Williams. Peculiar name, though by all means not the only peculiar name in San Francisco. John shrugged and walked toward the restaurant, allowing the fog in his brain to gently settle over anything that was not the next delivery.

Cause of Death

Source here.

Today I came across this sobering table, which struck me as important not only for the obvious reasons. You’ll note that homicide is nowhere in the top-ten list of causes of death for Americans. If you look at the CDC reports for causes of death in 2017 based on vital statistics, you’ll see homicide ranked anywhere between #106-108 (interestingly, “legal intervention” is ranked 109.)

Yet, to browse through the list of Netflix and Prime Video shows we are offered to numb our souls from the pandemic experience, you could be mistaken to believe that a much higher proportion of Americans succumb to homicide. And to me, this suggests that the current debate about who to release on the basis of “public safety” is guided more by folk devils than by real concerns.

Assuming that you include people in prison in the overall category of human beings whose lives and health matter (if you don’t, thank you for reading this far–we probably don’t speak the same language and I hold no hope of convincing you, nor should you hope to convince me), it should be obvious that COVID-19 poses a much greater risk to public safety, broadly defined, than homicide.

Now, releasing people convicted of violent crimes is not really a trade-off between COVID-19 deaths and homicide deaths, given that the folks most at risk healthwise, as I explained yesterday, are old and sick and also happen to have committed violent crime decades ago.

So, if there is reluctance to release the folks colloquially known as “violent offenders”–many of whom would barely have a technical write-up or two for the last two or three decades–it’s not really coming from concerns for public safety, is it? It’s coming from concerns for palatability and an idea that this is the right time for abstract ideas for retribution.

If I put the state’s resistance to do the right thing here together with the mismanagement of homeless populations, it almost seems like, at our time of need, we’ve simply decided that the bottom rung or two in the American class ladder don’t matter. And they do, which makes my heart hurt.

In Tricycle Magazine, Chenxing Han writes so beautifully:

The Buddha is often likened to a physician. He diagnosed the unsatisfactoriness of the human condition and revealed its cause. The Buddha was no doomsayer, however: his teachings were treatments that promised a cure, an ultimate freedom from that which ails us. SARS-CoV-2 is a truth-teaching virus. It has revealed to me a deep well of fear: of my loved ones dying, of dying myself (or, during more mundane moments, of running out of brown rice). More incisively, it has revealed society’s disturbing inequities and gross iniquities, forcing us to confront the truth of how the most vulnerable among us—the poor, the disabled, the unhoused, and the otherwise marginalized—bear the brunt of this crisis.   

What this cruel teacher will teach our state about caring for its most vulnerable wards remains to be seen–hopefully before it is too late.

Yes, We *Have* to Release People Originally Convicted of Violent Crime: The Last Hearing of Susan Atkins

Manson follower Susan Atkins loses 13th attempt at freedom -- and ...
Susan Atkins wheeled into her last parole hearing in 2009, accompanied by her husband,
James Whitehouse. Photo credit: Ben Margot for the Associated Press.

Latest news on prisoner release: A couple of days ago, the three-judge Plata panel denied relief for procedural reasons (TL;DR “we are not the appropriate forum for this – go to the original courts.”) As good people are scrambling to put together writs for those courts, I wanted to address something that I *thought* would be obvious, but apparently isn’t.

In the aftermath of putting up my petition to release prisoners, I’ve been hearing commentary that we should limit the releases to “nonviolent criminals.” I use the quotation marks because the definitions of what is and is not “violent” and “nonviolent” is not as clear as people think, and because someone’s crime of commitment is not necessarily an indication of their violent tendencies at present, nor does it predict their recidivism.

In Cheap on Crime and elsewhere I described the post-recession efforts to shrink prison population, which targeted only nonviolent people; reformers understandably thought that such reforms would be more palatable to the public. The problem with this kind of policy, though–as this excellent Prison Policy report explains–is that these kind of reforms ignore the majority of people in prison, who happen to be doing time for violent crime.

In addition to this, if we are looking at releases to address a public health crisis, we have to release the people who are vulnerable to the public health threat. And who, in prison, is most vulnerable? Aging and infirm prisoners.

The math is simple. Out of the prison population, folks who were sentenced for a violent crime are the ones most likely to be (1) aging and (2) infirm. Aging, because the sentences are much longer; and infirm, because spending decades in a hotbed of contagion, with poor food and poor exercise options, does not improve one’s health. We know that a considerable portion of the health crisis in California prison is iatrogenic; not so long ago, Supreme Court Justices were horrified to learn that a person was dying behind bars every six days fo a preventable disease. So, a person who has spent decades in prison is more likely to be vulnerable to health threats. Such a person is also more likely to be older (by virtue of having been in prison for 20, 30, 40 years!) and therefore far less of a public risk of reoffending than a younger person who’s been inside for a few months for some nonviolent offense.

So, if there’s any reluctance to release people who are (1) old, (2) sick, and (3) more likely to contract a serious form of disease that will (4) cause more suffering and (5) cost more money, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves – why?

Is it really because of a mission to protect the public? Because old, sick people are not a safety risk to the public.

So, is it perhaps because we think of these releases not as an essential public health action, but as some kind of “reward” for people who we think are “worthy” or “deserving”?

The correctional system’s ignorance of old age and sickness is a topic I know something about. In Chapter 6 of my book Yesterday’s Monsters I describe the 2009 parole hearing for Susan Atkins, one of the Manson Family members who participated in the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969. Forty years later, in her early sixties and ravaged by an inoperable brain tumor, Atkins–a devout Christian with a clean disciplinary record for decades–was wheeled into her hearing on a gurney. At her side was her 17-year husband, lawyer James Whitehouse, who represented her in the hope that she be allowed to spend the last few months of her life by his side.

The Parole Commissioners’ treatment of the case was shockingly obtuse. They started by offering the barely conscious Atkins a hearing aid (as if she could hear them), analyzed old psychological reports from her file, and addressed her educational and rehabilitation “prospect.” They even mocked her husband for being able to afford palliative care for his wife. Incensed by this facetiousness, Whitehouse exploded:

For the record, she’s lying in her gurney here. She is paralyzed over 85 percent of her body. She can move her head up and down. She can move it to the side. She used to have partial use of her left arm, partial limited use, meaning she can’t wave to you. She can’t give you a thumbs up. She no longer can point at you, I believe. She can’t snap her fingers. And this is the evidence. . . . We haven’t been able to get her in a wheelchair for well over a year. Permanent speech impairment—“does not communicate, speaking or writing”—complex medical needs, assistance needed eating, bathing, grooming, moving, cleaning, permanent speech and comprehension impairment due to underlying medical problems. . . . That’s the only evidence regarding her medical condition. And all those things have to do with what we are supposed to be looking for the future of behavior. In light of that, is there anything that her commitment offense has to do that’s probative to what she’s going to be doing in the future as far as you know? That’s a question.

The Parole Board refused to release Atkins, arguing that “these Manson killings and the rampage that went on is almost iconic and they have the ability to influence many other people, and she still has that ability as part of that group.” Atkins, who had no ability to do anything at all, died alone in prison a few months later.

If this outcome feels okay to you, ask yourself: what’s it to you? Do you have an idea of deservedness, of a price to pay, of just deserts? Do you think your idea of an appropriate time spent behind bars bows to no one, to nothing, not even to old age, sickness, and death?

Do you feel comfortable sentencing thousands of California prisoners to death because of these ideas of deservedness, or appropriate retribution, that you have? Will these ideas give you comfort when CDCR has to reckon with thousands of preventable deaths of human beings, just like you?

And if your answer is, “well, they didn’t consider that when they killed their victims, right?”, I have news for you: The victims are not coming back. They’ve been gone for decades. It’s horrible, and tragic, and we can’t fix that. Certainly not with another tragedy.

Get in touch with our common humanity. Write to the Governor. Sign my petition. Do something.

Israel and the U.S. – Emergency Measures

Political historian Heather Cox Richardson writes a daily news digest titled Letters from an American. In last night’s edition, she flagged the story about the DOJ secretly seeking emergency powers. She writes:

In the last two days, we learned that the administration and Republican members of Congress heard dire warnings about the coming coronavirus and continued to lie to the American people, telling us the Democrats trying to alert us were simply bent on undermining Trump. 

We also learned that Trump has refused to use the Defense Production Act, passed under President Harry S. Truman, who used it during the Korean War. This law would enable Trump to demand that American industries produce the medical equipment we currently need so badly. Business leaders say the invoking the law isn’t necessary, and Trump claims they are volunteering to produce what the nation needs in a public-private partnership. Currently there is such a critical shortage of medical equipment that some hospitals are asking people to sew basic masks at home, but today Trump announced that the clothing manufacturer Hanes is retrofitting factories to make masks; it has joined a consortium that is expected to produce 5-6 million masks weekly. 

These two stories reveal the same ideology that would underlay a law permitting arrest and imprisonment without trial: that society works best when it defers to a few special people who have access to information, resources, and power. Those people, in turn, use their power to direct the lives of the rest of us in larger patterns whose benefit we cannot necessarily see. We might think we need medical supplies but, in this worldview, using the government to force individual companies to make those supplies would hurt us in the long run. This ideology argues that we are better off leaving the decisions about producing medical supplies to business leaders. Similarly, we need leaders to run our economy and government, trusting that they will lead us, as a society, toward progress. 

But there is another way to look at the world, one that is at the heart of American society. That ideology says that society works best if everyone has equal access to information and resources, and has an equal say in government. In this worldview, innovation and production come from people across society, ordinary people as well as elites, and society can overcome challenges much more effectively with a multiplicity of voices than with only a few who tend to share the same perspective. To guarantee equal access to information, resources, and government, we all must have equality before the law, including the right to liberty unless we have been charged with a crime. 

For decades, now, America has increasingly moved toward the idea that a few people should consolidate wealth and power with the idea that they will most effectively use it to move America in a good direction. But the novel coronavirus pandemic has undercut the idea that a few leaders can run society most effectively. The administration’s response to this heavy challenge has been poor. And now we know that the very people who were publicly downplaying the severity of the coronavirus were told by our intelligence agencies that it was very bad indeed, and they were sharing that information with a few, favored individuals. Their leadership will literally, and quite immediately, cost a number of our lives.

I was struck by parallels in Israel. Dan Yakir, legal advisor to ACRI (the Association of Civil Rights in Israel) shared an email last night–here’s my translation (Dan, I hope I’m staying true to the letter):

On March 21, 2020, we wrote to the Attorney General and expressed concern about government offices acting without legal authority, sheltered by the coronavirus crisis. For example, this week, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health shared an announcement that included a variety of prohibitions, such as leaving the house for any nonvital purposes and hosting family and friends, with no basis; the legal office at the Ministry of Health demanded, with no legal authorization, that all Deans of health sciences schools provide a list of their students so they can be drafted if there’s a shortage in medical personnel; the Ministry of the Treasury published on its website on Friday instructions to employers about minimizing the number of onsite workers, even though corresponding emergency regulations have not been published yet. 

Most extreme is the Prime Minister, who almost every evening announces new limitations and decrees to the public. He never announces when they will attach. Most of the time, these are instructions with no legal validity and in some cases they are policies that have not yet been solidified and detailed. Ever since the Prime Minister’s announcement on the evening of Feb. 19, 2020, the public has been misled to think that a curfew policy is in effect. The publication of the draft regulation in the news outlets has bolstered this [mistaken] impression, but in this case, also, emergency regulation has not been published and its complete articulation has not been completed. 

Against this backdrop, consider the Minister of Security’s tweet from a few days ago, in which he encourages senior state workers to act at any price to anticipate the coronavirus: “If need be, knowingly violate the rules!”

ACRI’s letter to the Attorney General (in Hebrew) is here.

The whole world, of course, is experimenting with emergency regulation these days. But the striking similarities between the U.S. and Israel in particular are not surprising. In a recent paper, I argue that American influence on Israeli criminal justice policy stems from some similarities between the two political cultures. Drawing on Malcolm Feeley’s argument about viewing American criminal justice through the lens of American Political Development, I argue that the U.S. and Israel are best compared to developing nations where criminal justice is concerned:

Looking at both countries through the lens of development theory highlights several relevant similarities. First, both countries have a strong legacy of ethnic and racial conflict, which impacts the composition of the population subjected to criminal justice control. Second, both countries are characterized by high levels of interpersonal violence and, relatedly, a high concentration of guns. In the United States, gun ownership is the outcome of both illegal purchase and permissive gun laws, and in Israel, guns circulating in civilian hands are related to the wide access—legal and illegal—to military weaponry even in civilian spaces. In both countries, fetishization of protectionism and aggressive bravery plays into the culture of interpersonal violence. Third, both countries are characterized by unusual levels of police overreach and brutality, far beyond their Western industrialized counterparts. And fourth, both countries rank considerably higher than other Western industrialized countries in perception of political corruption—in 2018, the United States at 22 and Israel at 34.

The context in which these characteristics arise is, of course, different for the two countries. The United States has a long and difficult legacy of slavery, whereas in Israel the ethnic conflict stems from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Occupation, as well as from ethnic and religious tensions within the Jewish population. Moreover, gun ownership has a very different cultural significance in the two countries, though they both share fear and concern about guns ending up in inappropriate hands. And the differences in scale matter a great deal; it has often been said that “American criminal justice” is not a monolith, as there is considerable difference among state criminal justice policies. Still, on a national scale, the cultural comparisons are striking. The trend of comparison is especially evident when comparing the Netanyahu and Trump administrations’ positions on crimmigration, drug enforcement, severity of punishment, and racial/ethnic discrimination in application of laws. Some manifestations of these policies have been particularly similar: The separation of immigrant children from their families at the American border, widely criticized both domestically and internationally, was reverberated in the incarceration of African asylum seekers at Saharonim prison in the desert, a policy move which similarly provoked international critique. Similarly, the Trump Administration’s enthusiasm for the death penalty for drug dealers, even as the penalty is in its final throes, is echoed by legislative efforts in Israel to make capital punishment a de-facto option –with supporters in both countries making deterrence arguments.

I think the same mechanisms are at work in the creation of emergency legislation. The same vulnerabilities and predatory governing techniques are at work in both countries, and they fuel fantasies of despotic governing, for which the global health crisis provides the perfect cover. It’s not that the measures themselves are unreasonable; if adopted through proper parliamentary process, many of them make sense in the current crisis. My concern is that disturbing precedents to proper governance are made in both countries, whose poisonous effects will remain with us long before the virus is abated.

Coronavirus and Criminal Justice Compendium

General
No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform
California Coalition of Women Prisoners Syllabus on Coronavirus and Corrections

Crime Rates
Concerns about layoffs leading to rise in crime rates
Some police say crime down during COVID-19 fight
INTERPOL warns of financial fraud linked to COVID-19
The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force

Compilations of State Responses
Justice Collaborative: COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Response & Resources
The Appeal: The Coronavirus Response: Spotlight on State & Local Governments 

Bay Area Jail Releases
San Francisco Releasing 26 Jail Inmates To Help Stem Coronavirus Spread

SF Marijuana Dispensary Debacle
San Francisco cannabis dispensaries win reprieve from coronavirus shutdown order
Confusion Plagues Bay Area Cannabis Industry Over ‘Essential’ Designation

Drug Addiction Therapy and Response
DEA COVID-19 Response Page
Safe Injection Sites: Coronavirus Underlines Why They Make Sense
AA Response to COVID-19

Policing
D.C. Cops Balance Bravado and Caution During COVID-19 Pandemic
SFPD Response to COVID-19

Prisons
This Chart Shows Why The Prison Population Is So Vulnerable to COVID-19
What Coronavirus Quarantine Looks Like in Prison
Tracking Prisons’ Response to Coronavirus
As COVID-19 Measures Grow, Prison Oversight Falls

Experiencing and Fixing Miscarriages of Justice
What It’s Like to Be Freed from Death Row During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic, Darrill Henry Wins a New Trial, But Must Wait in Prison
Alabama halts pardon, parole hearings due to COVID-19