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In a two-part series, we look at how COVID-19 has torn through prisons and how organizers are trying to push state and local governments to release inmates in order to contain the spread of the pandemic. For Part 2, we talk about why vaccines aren’t an effective solution to ending COVID in prisons, and we also look at how re-entry has become harder during the pandemic. Then we head to a South Florida jail to learn why activists want to end pre-trial detention.
This story has been supported by the Omnia Foundation and the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Image Caption: Joseph V. Conte Facility; Image Credit: Broward County Sheriff’s Office
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Featuring: Credits: Making Contact Staff:
Making Contact Staff:
- Blear Moon – Further Discovery
- Hinterheim – Prior Restraint
- Jim Hall – Wanderlust
- Nihilore – More Scared of You
- Crowander – Surreal
- Daniel Birch – Indigo Strokes
- Makaih Beats – Too Much
- Soft and Furious – So What
Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s making contact.
Chanthon Bun: Every decision CDC made during that time to even contain it was all wrong and uncaring.
Salima Hamirani: We’re airing part 2 of our series, the Pandemic inside about COVID in prisons. We talk about re-entry and what happens to people released in the middle of a global pandemic.
Rojas: To finally get out and, and not know about this pandemic, not know how to protect yourself and you die right away. You never had a chance.
Salima Hamirani: And we take a look at pre-trial detention in Florida jails.
Pilar Weiss: Most organizers working in this space or in particularly community bail and bond funds are advocating for an end to pre-trial detention because they understand that money bail is only one part of it.
Salima Hamirani: Welcome to Part 2 of our series. So in part 1, we talked about COVID spreading like [00:01:00] wildfire through San Quentin, and other prisons in California, and how prisons essentially act like super spreader events, infecting the surrounding communities. We also talked about why organizers and prisoners are calling for mass releases, as the only real humane way to fight the pandemic.
But as we were compiling this piece last year, news broke that scientists had developed multiple highly effective vaccines.
News clip: Tonight a second vaccine is likely just days away after an FDA review confirmed Moderna’s vaccine is just as effective as Pfizer’s with 94 percent efficacy. Apparently…
Salima Hamirani: So we wanted to start by talking about vaccines because mass immunization could stop the pandemic in prisons – if everyone was vaccinated. And yet, almost everyone I spoke to had reservations. Here’s why.
Hadar Aviram: I think it’s perfectly okay to mandate the vaccine of people who are employed and choose employment out of their own will, but people were incarcerated against their will. Can’t be required to take the vaccine
Salima Hamirani: That’s Hadar Aviram, a lawyer working on litigation about the treatment of prisoners in California during COVID-19.
Hadar Aviram: The problem with vaccinating, the incarcerated people themselves is a little bit more complicated because we have to keep in mind that there is a very long and sad legacy of horrific medical experiments and exploitation targeting these populations. By the way, people of color as well on the outside and there’s a lot of overlap. So there is immense mistrust, like a legacy of mistrust already in place. And don’t forget that until very, very recently. We were still sterilizing women in California prisons without their consent. The memory of this pain and this exploitation is very recent. And because of that, there’s already a lot of mistrust.
And on top of that, we have the last nine months in which, at every opportunity that CDCR had to do the right thing, they did the opposite.
Salima Hamirani: Bun, agrees. We met Bun in the first part of this series. He was in San Quentin during an outbreak of COVID-19. When I talked to Bun about how prisons officials had dealt with COVID he actually started to laugh.
Chanthon Bun: Because it’s so ridiculous how they did it. It’s like, every decision CDC made during that time to even contain it was all wrong and uncaring.
Salima Hamirani: Bun watched prisons officials moving inmates from cell to cell, in the middle of the pandemic.
Chanthon Bun: And they’re not testing them as they’re moving them within the prison, I was like, what are they doing? They’re trying to kill us.
Salima Hamirani: He saw guards refusing to wear masks. which has been a huge problem, since its been shown that guards were the main way COVID entered prisons
Chanthon Bun: They had their mask like under, on the neck, below their nose.
Salima Hamirani: He watched his friends, and fellow prisoners struggle to keep themselves safe, and yet they succumbed to COVID.
Chanthon Bun: I used to talk to my friend, Eric Warner.
And he’s like, man, I’m worried if I catch it, I’m going to die. And I knew him. He had respiratory problems and stuff like. He was the, like the first dude, he made his own mask. He has two masks on at all times, even when he’s working out, he’s always clean.
But then. He’s the, he’s the guy that died of COVID in there. My friend. He had COVID and passed away.
Salima Hamirani: Because of his experience, when Bun was asked to get a covid test, he refused.
Chanthon Bun: I looked at it and said I’m not going to test. You’re in somewhere where you don’t have no information where you don’t trust the word of, of a physician. Like, I don’t really trust you because you work for CDCR and they’ve been literally, they’re trying to kill me.
Salima Hamirani: His experience is common. Many prisoners don’t trust CDCR. So forcibly vaccinating prisoners isn’t an ethical option.
Swati Rayasam: Public health is about honoring that history and everything. It’s not about forcing you to get a vaccine. It shouldn’t be.
Salima Hamirani: That’s Swati Rayasam, from the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition.
Swati Rayasam: So it’s important to give folks who are incarcerated access to neutral and clear educational materials. Answer their questions. Totally great. And then give them the option of getting it or not getting it.
Salima Hamirani: Swati also worries that a vaccine that protects prisoners against COVID, doesn’t really solve the bigger problem. Because as many experts have warned, COVID isn’t the first pandemic, and it’s definitely not going to be the last.
Swati Rayasam: It is really critical that these downstream medical treatments not be mistaken for upstream solutions to this problem, right? Like COVID-19 is the vector by which we got this disease, but the upstream problem, the upstream cause is the carceral system.
Salima Hamirani: Prisons in California, and across the US, are not high on the vaccine priority list. Nonetheless about 33,000 prisoners have received the first dose of the vaccine, along with about 25,000 staff. But, 50% of staff in prisons say they’re reluctant to get the vaccine and disease experts worry that as mutations increase, we’re heading towards vaccine resistant variants of COVID and possibly, re-infection. So currently, immunization is NOT the most efficient response to COVID and that still leave us with the question of releases. As we talked about in the first half of this series, because of the crowded, and unsanitary conditions within prisons many medical experts have argued that reducing the prison population across California institutions by 50% is the only way to stop the pandemic.
So let’s say we do take mass releases seriously. A 50% reduction in the prison population is huge. How would it work? Here’s Hadar Aviram.
Hadar Aviram: if we’re looking at the entire prison system and you’re asking me well, Can we reduce the whole population of the prison system by 50%? Yes. If we wanted to do it, we could do it today. Again, about a quarter of the people in prison are 50 years old and up those folks are people who have aged out of violent crime.
They can be with an ankle monitor on the outside. They’re going to be no risk to anybody. The vast majority of women in California prisons have experienced themselves such deeply traumatized lives that a lot of times it’s difficult to untangle what they had done from what had been done to them.
Generally speaking again, not a dangerous population all over women’s prisons could be emptied. All of these people could be with ankle monitors on the outside. Half of the people in California are people that by CDCR’s own definitions are defined as low risk. Again, should these people be in prison at a time like this? Probably not.
Salima Hamirani: It’s unlikely that California will empty women’s prisons or release most people over the age of 50. But even if we were to take a more conservative approach, CDCR still seems hesitant.
James King: CDCR has not attempted any type of large-scale release plan for the people who are most medically vulnerable, who also happen to be the people who are safest to release.
Salima Hamirani: That’s James King , from the Ella Baker Center. His colleague Adamu Chan, shares his frustration.
Adamu Chan: It’s been really difficult to kind of witness the fact that across the board there has been a recognition that carceral facilities are not safe and that people who are inside are at risk. And that with that evidence and with those facts, CDCR and the governor’s office still refuse to really seriously consider mass release which are not unsafe.
Salima Hamirani: For many of the advocates I talked to, the most frustrating aspect has been the lack of response from California’s Govenor – Gavin Newsom.
Hadar Aviram: Governor Newsom holds a lot of power in this conversation. The bottom line is that he actually has at his disposal several levers that he can push to make this better.
So there is a provision in the California constitution that allows him to release part or even all of California’s prison population in an emergency. I think this easily fits the definition of an emergency. He has parole powers. So all the people who have been recommended for parole by the parole board, he can approve, he can, he can expedite his approval to get people out.
There is nothing to stop that from happening, except for lack of political goodwill. We also know that we are dealing with a person who is fundamentally, a good and decent person who has done the good and decent thing oftentimes against what he perceived to be public opinion – like with the same sex marriage issue, like with the death penalty moratorium issue. And just recently, submitted an Amicus brief in a case, arguing that the death penalty is administered in a racially discriminatory way. Now, I am sure the irony is not lost on him. That more people have died of COVID-19 on death row under his moratorium than we’ve executed since 1978, since the death penalty’s been back on the books.
Salima Hamirani: We were unable to get an interview with Gavin Newsom, but here he is during a COVID briefing in December of 2020.
Gavin Newsom Clip: we have reduced the census, the total population since March by over 21,000 individuals. Over 21,000. This is almost without precedent in California’s history. And you could see some of the work we’d done to do that meaning we have looked on early release for what we referred to as non-non-nons people that have, uh, X number of weeks, months left on their sentences.
Salima Hamirani: But those people would have been released soon anyway. As for large scale releases.
Gavin Newsom Clip: I simply will not en mass release people without looking individual by individual.
Salima Hamirani: Activists have been targeting Gavin Newsom for months trying to pressure him to act on COVID 19 in prisons and they continue to hold rallies about mass releases as the pandemic wears on.
Salima Hamirani: We want to end our piece by talking about the fate of people who gain their freedom during the pandemic. Because even if prisoners are not released on a mass scale, people are being let go almost daily.
James King: Like, even in a world where we do not have a pandemic or COVID people, thousands of people are released from prison because their sentences are up every month anyway, those people are still getting out. They’ve completed their time.
Salima Hamirani: And because of the early release programs that Gavin Newsom mentioned, we’ve never released this many people in the middle of a global pandemic. So what happens to people who gain their freedom? For most people, re-entry means that they simply return to their loved ones and that’s still true even during COVID.
James King: What I can say is that the number one re-entry provider for people who are released from prisons are their families. According to the CDCR’s own data, 70% of the people they release, just go home and the other 30% there’s project hope there’s project room, key, and other resources available to support them upon reentry.
Salima Hamirani: That’s James King again and he’s right, a lot of people do have support on the outside. It’s a stereotype to think of all released prisoners as ending up homeless or unemployed.
James King: This notion that people who go home that releases with somehow create a, a housing situation or a homeless problem, I think is just another way of othering people who are incarcerated.
Salima Hamirani: But the pandemic has created a completely new and challenging situation and the truth is, a lot can go wrong. Bun, for example, was sick when he was released from San Quentin.
Chanthon Bun: When I paroled the nurse saw me. She said, you didn’t get a COVID test. I said, nah, I refuse. She goes, we’re supposed to give you a COVID test today, but you getting out so go ahead. Check me, everything cleared me, gave the medication that I had and said, you’re cleared. You could leave.
Salima Hamirani: He wasn’t trying to endanger anyone else, he just wanted to get out.
Chanthon Bun: I try to say goodbye to all the people I knew in my block, they were all sick. All they say like, bro, good luck.
Salima Hamirani: [00:14:12] He also wasn’t given much direction when he was released. He was just given a little money and sent on his way.
Chanthon Bun: They dropped me off at the bus station. I didn’t know what to do. So I got on the bus and it just, it said San Francisco, I just got on the bus. I’ve been in prison for 23 years. Never been on like a bus ride for that long or seeing people moving so fast. So I’m, I’m getting motion sickness. I’m getting a temperature. I’m starting to hallucinate.
Salima Hamirani: It’s a common story, I talked to an organizer working on reentry programs, in Los Angeles, to understand how much harder freedom has become during COVID.
Rojas: My name is Rojas. I use they, them pronouns and I’m the site director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center in LA. Since COVID, we ran a home free emergency housing, COVID emergency housing. We provided like three meals a day, virtual programming, including self-determination planning, harm reduction and na support. And we provided transportation, basic toiletries, clothing, and supplies.
Salima Hamirani: Rojas says that while it’s true many people have families waiting for them it’s not always easy to go home.
Rojas: Like one will be on parole. And so you can’t parole to that house. So you can’t always go with family, you know, you’ll be violated just for that.
Salima Hamirani: And many former prisoners have lost support because of COVID.
Rojas: I mean, a lot of them have family members, grandparents, parents who’ve died. So it’s, it’s, it’s a lot harder. Like they’re getting out into a whole different world.
Salima Hamirani: I asked Rojas if they had worked with anyone who’d gotten COVID since being released.
Rojas: Yeah, I have. Someone I know is recently released and caught COVID about a month after they were out. They just died. To finally get out and, and not know about this pandemic, not know how to protect yourself and you die right away. You never had a chance. That’s a lot of our folks.
Salima Hamirani: Across the country, re-entry programs are struggling to deal with the surge of early releases during the pandemic. Some transitional programs won’t accept people being released, because prisons are inconsistently testing people and just sending them home, like in Bun’s case. And re-entry programs are understaffed and vastly underfunded. We can’t just release people. If we don’t also provide reentry support for the formerly incarcerated, we continue to put them at heightened risk of catching COVID and dying from it. The good news is that people are provided with support upon release can thrive. Bun, for example was lucky. When he was released, various nonprofit and religious organizations stepped in to help him.
Chanthon Bun: I was free and the community came in and saved my life. They came together like APSC, ALC, the religious community, had a quarantine spot for me. Dropped food off for me. They made sure they called till I woke up. Check on what temperature it is, what’s my oxygen level. I have, my oxygen level was so low I had to go to the hospital. They took me to the hospital. I couldn’t even walk a couple yards without just falling over coughing. It was so bad. I couldn’t do nothing.
Salima Hamirani: He thinks the reason he’s alive right now is because he was able to get out of San Quentin, into the free world.
Chanthon Bun: I would’ve died. If I, if I was in prison, I would have died if I went to the detention center.
Salima Hamirani: The day I talk to him its a beautiful day in Oakland.
Chanthon Bun: I’m thinking about, after the interview, going fishing, taking the boy out for scootering, you know. Maybe even give him a haircut.
Salima Hamirani: He needs a haircut?
Chanthon Bun: He needs a haircut but he wants to go scootering so we’re gonna have to just talk him into it.
Salima Hamirani: But, even though he’s thriving now, he has mixed feeling his freedom.
Chanthon Bun: It’s bittersweet because yeah, I’m free, but I’m not free because I have friends in there. I do have survivor’s guilt. Because my friend, my friend did die. I have friends in there that’s going through a hard time. Uh, they’re having symptoms after COVID like I had, and I, I, I could relate to that. Understand how it is. Two of my close friends died, What hit me the most is Eric. I was talking to him to him every day and he was so worried about it. And then we’re like, yeah, bro. And we had a lot of conversation and he gave me a lot of positive conversation before I came home.Like he died 17 days after I was released and I heard the news that he passed. We were, we, we lived together for two years and when I heard he died, I was like, that hit me. I was like, I don’t know what CDCR is reporting, but they’re killing people.
Salima Hamirani: You were just listening to Bun talking about his experience of re-entry during COVID and you’re listening to Making Contact to keep up to date on our shows and get behind the scenes information visit radio project.org. And now back to our show.
Salima Hamirani: Welcome back to Making contact. We’ve been focused on prisons until now, but COVID-19 is also burning through jails, infecting thousands and jails are also incredibly overcrowded because of this COVID has forced to change in one of the most pernicious criminal justice issues affecting people across this country, pretrial detention. Renata Sago brings us this story from a South Florida jail.
Renata Sago: Dwayne Simon is in the visitation area of the Joseph V. Conte Facility in Broward County when we speak. We’re talking through a video app. The connection is shaky.
Dwayne Simon: My life is at risk in here.
Renata Sago: We’re nine months into the pandemic. Jails across the country have become hotspots for COVID-19. Dwayne says he’s heard that his bed belonged to someone with the virus.
Dwayne Simon: I had somebody come and prep some antiseptic spray, things of that nature that would just ease my feelings a little bit toward the situation.
Renata Sago: He says his diabetes has gotten worse while in custody. And that he’s heard the nurse who cared for him died of COVID-19. I contact the health agency that works with the jail and don’t get a response. By now, more than 160 staff across Broward County jails have tested positive for the coronavirus. About 130 people in custody have, too.
Dwayne Simon: I’ve seen people with worse situations than me — I’ve sat here and prayed for people with worse situations than me — and they’re home.
Renata Sago: When news of the virus broke, Dwayne was coming up on 20 months at Conte. He went into custody for four charges. All of them came with a bond except one: an alleged kidnapping involving a woman who had a warrant out for her arrest. Right as the pandemic hit, Dwayne was scheduled to go before a judge to try to prove his innocence. His trial was postponed.
Dwayne Simon: And I was scared out of my mind because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Renata Sago: Across the United States, criminal justice reform advocates were concerned, too. How would jails respond in a pandemic when even before then they had problems? Jails and prisons in New York, New Jersey, California, and other states began releasing people with low-risk charges from custody. Community bail funds raised money, too. When a deadly outbreak reached the Cook County jail last April, the Bail Project raised enough money to release hundreds of people from custody.
Protestors: “No justice, no peace”
Renata Sago: The killing of George Floyd by a police officer added to that momentum.
Renata Sago: Pilar Weiss is with the National Bail Fund Network. She estimates organizations brought in $75 million dollars after protests across the country. But her network was only able to release a small group of people.
Pilar Weiss: In sort of popular culture and in sort of broad media coverage, often the issue is covered as end money bail or cash bail. Right, like that’s the focus. But actually most organizers working in this space or in particular community beyond bail funds are advocating for an end to pretrial detention because they understand that money bail is only one part of it.
Renata Sago: Raising bail does not work to get everyone out of jail. That’s because some charges carry no bond. These are charges that are more serious and may be punishable by life in prison. Like homicide or armed kidnapping. A bond can be revoked for violating probation and the terms of release. Or missing a court date. There’s no nationwide data tracking of no-bond charges. But in Broward County jails, the rate of people in custody with no bond charges is high. 77 percent.
Renata Sago: Shima Baughman is a law professor at the University of Utah. For about a decade, she has been researching pretrial detention in the United States.
Shima Baughman: So constitutionally every defendant should have the right to release before trial. It’s part of a due process right, as well as the presumption of innocence that all defendants from the beginning of the Magna Carta to the founding of the United States have always had.
Renata Sago: Over at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, the head of pretrial services — David Scharf — says there’s a misconception about people with no bond charges.
David Scharf: People think, well, they’re just put in there to wait. No, that’s not the case. There’s mandatory motions and hearings and things that go along with the process to assure that due process is upheld and that these folks have an opportunity to present their case, that they can be released safely into the community. But, again, that decision lies solely with the discretion of the court.
Renata Sago: David’s team has been using risk assessments to determine whether people in custody should be eligible for pretrial release. These assessments are based on a few factors like prior convictions, education level, and financial stability. Judges use that data to make decisions on pretrial release.
David Scharf: Having information in front of you, not always gives you the best results, but at least it lets the judges make a decision based on science.
Renata Sago: In a report from 2009, researchers found that Broward County’s risk assessment wasn’t so scientific. That it was based on a sample size that didn’t truly reflect certain groups in custody: primarily women, Latinos, and sex offenders. And Broward County doesn’t even give risk assessments to people in custody facing no bond charges.
PANELIST: So there’s a lot of activity in the chat area right now, so I’m writing down a lot of notes but it sounds like…
Renata Sago: Every year, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies, or NAPSA, convenes to talk about jail reform. Last September, the group held a virtual conference to talk solutions in the midst of COVID-19. NAPSA surveyed pretrial agencies across the country asking how they were responding to the pandemic. Most jurisdictions said they’d released more people from custody. Jim Sawyer heads NAPSA.
Jim Sawyer: We didn’t see negative results around reporting to court, being accountable to court or new criminal activity or public safety issues.
Renata Sago: Risk assessments weren’t on the survey. But Sawyer says giving them to every defendant in custody — no matter the charge — is one solution to reducing pretrial detention.
Jim Sawyer: It’s an in or out decision: Are you staying in custody or you out of custody, pretrial? And then if you’re out of custody: What conditions do I want to put on your release? Do you need to check in once a week with your pretrial officer? Do you need to have drug testing? Do you need to be seen by a mental health specialist?
Renata Sago: In Nevada, Texas, and Massachusetts bills calling for an end to money bail or providing risk assessment tools to judges have advanced. Shima Baughman with the University of Utah published research last year that found risk assessments have serious biases based on factors that assume people’s criminality.
Shima Baughman: Even the ones that are touted to be the most promising discriminate on the basis of race, socioeconomic status.
Renata Sago: For people with no-bond charges in Broward County, the most immediate help has come from local organizations, like Chainless Change. Marq Mitchell is executive director. He’s been in video visitations with clients since last March.
Marq Mitchell: We’re dealing with a gentleman who’s been incarcerated in Broward for about three years, and he hasn’t saw his attorney in the past two years. No one’s communicated with him. He even tried to get rid of that attorney and have someone else appointed by the courts because he had not saw the attorney in two years. And the local judge rejected that request.
Renata Sago: When the pandemic hit, Marq and his team began protesting about the conditions inside the jails. They also created a special hotline for people in custody to call and report what they were dealing with. Marq says before the pandemic, people wanted to get out of custody so badly that they’d take a plea during their hearing even if they had previously maintained their innocence. Now, it’s worse.
Criminal justice reform advocates I spoke to say pretrial releases at the start of the pandemic created an illusion of progress. For Shima Baughman, one step to change the system is to modify how people are charged.
Shima Baughman: Prosecutors are charging three offenses for instance, when they could charge one.
Renata Sago: Pilar Weiss with the National Bail Fund Network says the jail system needs a complete overhaul.
Pilar Weiss: We need investment in housing, right? You need mental health care services, healthcare services, childcare, right. Jobs. None of these are gonna be solved with incarceration. None of these are gonna be solved with pretrial detention.
Renata Sago: It’s February when Dwayne Simon and I speak again. He’s sitting inside the visitation area of Conte clutching the phone close to his ear. He’s got a cloth mask on.
Dwayne Simon: That’s about the best things that has happened. Us getting these cloth masks. That’s about it.
Renata Sago: His attorney says the earliest he could go before a judge to defend himself against his charges is in July. But that’s just a guess.
Salima Hamirani: That was Renata Sago reporting from South Florida. And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact to learn more, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org. On Facebook, we’re making contact and on Instagram, we’re makingcontactradioproject.
The Making Contact team includes Sonya Green, Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Sabine Blazin and I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.