10 Feb News Brief — Covid in Prisons: No One Cares Until Things Start to Burn
Citations Needed | February 10, 2021 | Transcript
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded, and today, we wanted to talk about something that doesn’t really get as much news coverage as it needs to until there’s an if it bleeds, it leads kind of story. This is, and we touched on this nearly a year ago, the issue of COVID-19 and our prison and jail system in this country.
Adam: Yeah, so we did a fairly long News Brief on this topic back in April of 2020 anticipating the COVID-19 pandemic would end up killing a lot of people in prisons by the virtue of what prisons and jails are. That has since come to bear in many ways and there’s also, now back on the uptick. As COVID spikes throughout the country, it’s spiking, quadruple-y so within the prison system in a lot of states and it’s recently back in the news incidentally, in addition to activists pushing this topic, it is like all these things the only time anyone cares or the media reports on it, is when there’s a so-called prison riot or a jail riot, as was the case on February 5 inside of the St. Louis, the somewhat perversely and ironically named, City Justice Center, which is a local jail that has been notorious for quite some time, specifically, in the last year there’s been other agitations, uprisings much smaller than this one, but before that, previously, it did have a reputation as being uniquely inhumane, even relative to other county jails and prisons and so we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight the media’s failure, specifically television, local news, and national television news’ failure to address this topic at all and to give it any kind of moral urgency, and discuss the ways in which these narratives disappear incarcerated people in this country, the way that they push them into the dark corner to not be talked about, like so many COVID deaths, specifically Black and Brown, poor communities, we sort of just accepted their fate as inevitable, did some hand wringing around the margins and then kind of moved on, and we want to talk about why this is, despite all the kind of hopeful rhetoric around vaccines, that this is still very much an urgent issue that requires people’s attention and far, far, far, far more immediate coverage than it’s getting.
Nima: Later on this News Brief, we’ll speak with Patrice Daniels, an activist and revolutionary who’s been in Illinois state prison since he was 18 years old.
Patrice Daniels: Prison is already an extremely stressful environment. Prison is already a challenging environment. When you exacerbate it by the fact of an invisible virus floating around killing people, on top of the fact of them saying that in order to keep you safe, they’re going to exact on you more confinement and more restrictive conditions and circumstances, it does make for an extremely volatile situation.
Nima: So we’d like to start off with just some basic metrics updated from where we were a year ago. Of course, there are about 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States, more than in any other country on planet Earth. Now, the people who are incarcerated are almost five times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 and three times as likely to die from it than the general American population, once you kind of adjust for sex and age. Now, a September 2020 study published by the Annals of Epidemiology found that prisons have become key COVID vectors because of near non-existent social distancing able to be practiced there and routinely poor sanitation and lack of proper protective gear. So, back in April, in 2020, a shocking 73 percent of people who were incarcerated at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio had tested positive for COVID. Another study from June of last year found that Cook County Jail in Chicago was responsible for 15.7 percent, nearly 16 percent, of all documented cases of COVID-19 throughout the entire state of Illinois. This has only gotten worse really. So according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, this is back in December of 2020, “One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus…. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected.” Now, The Marshall Project and AP, continue to track infections and deaths in prisons across the US, and they report that, as of last week, February 2, at least 372,583 people in prison have tested positive since the outbreak of the virus. Of those, 2,359, at least, had died from it.
Adam: And so the response to this was to lock people down in prison and take away their freedoms, which of course, was a pretext to prevent the spread. So, we can’t really, on mass, release people from prison despite other countries doing that — Iran, Colombia, Swaziland. Other countries have done fairly large mass releasings of their prison populations — which were already relatively small to ours — but that’s just not on the board for most governors, some exceptions sort of here and there, we’ll talk about what those were. But according to Tiana Herring of Prison Policy Initiative, quote, “Parole boards approved fewer releases in 2020 than in 2019, despite the raging pandemic.” In a February 3 article, she writes, quote, “In over half of the states we studied — Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina — between 2019 and 2020, there was either no change or a decrease in parole grant rates.” The Prison Policy Initiative’s Emily Widra noted on February 3, 2021, quote, “The good news is that jail and prison populations remain lower than they were before COVID-19, but it’s not obvious just how much of that is attributable to additional releases.” She notes:
“Many states’ prison populations are the lowest they’ve been in decades, but this is not because more people are being released from prisons. The limited data available from a handful of states shows that the number of prison releases did not change much between 2019 and 2020, suggesting that most of the population drops that we’ve seen over the past year are due to reduced prison admissions. (Certainly, reducing the number of people admitted to correctional facilities is critical to reducing the number of people behind bars, but to quickly de-carcerate, states should be releasing far more people, too.)”
So basically, there hasn’t really been a ton of releases, despite health professionals from day one saying that was necessary and the result has been roughly 2,400 deaths and that’s just the ones we can attribute to, my guess is, based on prison healthcare and the way they work, it’s probably much larger than that, and over 370,000 cases of people incarcerated with coronavirus, and as Nima mentioned, some states have over half of their prison population is infected with coronavirus. So basically, we sort of just let them rot.
Nima: In addition to this, and I think this is often not known, this is not something that I necessarily knew, until I explored a little more and read about this, but in most states, incarcerated people are still expected to pay medical co-pays for physician visits for their medications, even to get COVID-19 testing within the prisons that they are incarcerated in. Now, these co-pays may not seem like that big a deal. Those of us who do have health insurance know that co-pays can range from say $5 to $50, depending on what you’re doing. Prison rate co-pays are something to the order of $2 to $5 per visit. Now, here’s the thing, incarcerated people generally earn between $0.14 and $0.63 per hour when they’re working in prisons. So $2 to $5, when that’s your hourly rate, is effectively the equivalent, and this is according to Prison Policy Initiative who does such great work on this, that’s why we keep quoting them, the equivalent of charging someone who’s not incarcerated about $200 or $500 per medical visit. So these co-pays even discourage people who may be exhibiting symptoms, who may need to go see a doctor, who are feeling sick, from even doing that, the bare minimum of doing what they can to take them out of harm’s way and to prove less of a risk for other people that they really have a hard time distancing from of course. Now, some states have recognized this harm and have reduced either the copay rates or eliminated them or suspended them during COVID, but this remains a really critical issue. It’s not merely that people who are incarcerated can’t functionally social distance or physically distance from each other, of course, but even when they do need to go see a doctor, even that becomes a burden.
Adam: So cut to the St. Louis City Justice Center uprising from a couple days ago. This is the first time in a very long time we saw a bunch of different media outlets covering COVID in prisons, the primary grievance the prisoners gave the media, the signs they’re holding up, their loved ones on the outside mentioned and this has been something that again, there’s been two major quote-unquote “disturbances” at this very same jail in the previous weeks, the reason they’ve given over and over again, is that COVID positive or suspected COVID positive or symptomatic populations are just being thrown together. Those who are sick are being ignored. And so this was seen as, in addition to other abusive treatments that predate COVID-19, this was seen as their last resort. So, what we did is we took outlets that covered the uprising at the St. Louis jail and then we looked to see if they had covered the conditions of this jail or other jails in Missouri with respect to COVID-19, to see if they had. So we had CBS News that did a salacious report on this uprising, they had not reported, this is national CBS News, they had indeed not reported on COVID-19 in prisons. They had one report almost 10 months ago on Sunday morning at 7am but that was pretty much it. So thousands and thousands of air hours and CBS News not one mention in the past six months. A local St. Louis NBC News affiliate covered this uprising, we looked to see if they had covered any kind of COVID related issues with jails and prisons in Missouri over the past six months, they had not. They had reports on the other disturbances at City Justice Center, but no mention of COVID outside of that context, again, proving the case that, for lack of a better term, and we don’t want to be glib about this, but proving the case that riots work. It is the only way they can get media coverage for this urgent issue. So we looked at local NBC News in Central Illinois, they had a total police stenography article on this Illinois uprising, which didn’t even mention their complaints about COVID, which is one way of pathologizing this type of uprising as being just mindless violence from hardened criminals. The local Central Illinois NBC, you’ll be surprised to learn, did not have any articles mentioning COVID in prisons in the past six months.
Nima: The local Fox affiliate in St. Louis also had no previous reports on COVID in prison, however, a month ago, it ran an egregious hit piece on why the City Justice Center, this jail that is now in the news again, why officials at that jail were “letting drugs get inside,” and this article made a passing mention of COVID, but again, really only did so within the context of a previous jail uprising. So not just reporting on it to report on it, right? But only in the context of that there were quote-unquote “disturbances” that there were quote-unquote “riots,” and that is what was making it into the news.
Adam: Codifying our thesis that prison riots exist because they’re the only thing that gets people to care about their grievances, which is taken for granted as an article of faith within prisons and jails, this is not an original commentary we’re making, I guess what we’re trying to do is show that it’s based on an example, just this week, is largely true.
Nima: And so, you know, in the AP reporting on the current events, this is from Saturday, February 6, had this headline, “Inmates at St. Louis jail set fires, break out windows over conditions amid COVID.” What is leading that, of course, is the property destruction, breaking windows — Oh, my. Oh, my. — and then you have the article actually, you know, have to mention that this is, quote, “latest disturbance over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions that have limited visits and stalled court proceedings.” So in this AP report, there are a number of quotes from Jacob Long, who is the spokesperson for Mayor Lyda Krewson of St. Louis, who noted that about 115 incarcerated people were involved in the current quote-unquote “disturbance” and describe the group as quote, “extremely violent and non compliant,” end quote, and went on to say this, so this is the spokesperson for the St. Louis Mayor:
“’I imagine they are under the same amount of stress due to COVID restrictions like the rest of us are,’ Long said. ‘Courts haven’t been hearing cases in the 22nd Judicial Circuit. Their family visits have been restricted. But also they are acting out and that is the current situation.’”
Adam: Yeah, so clearly you and I are experiencing the same thing people in jails and prisons are.
Nima: Yeah, I imagine it’s the same kind of COVID stress as anyone else —
Adam: Literally the same thing. Hunkering back with some hot cocoa and watching reruns of 24 is literally the same thing as being inside of a jail or prison in St. Louis. Yeah, just like you and I. This is one of my favorite rhetorical tropes that we’ve mentioned on the show during coronavirus, which is we’re all in this together. It’s like no we’re not.
Adam: No, we’re not.
Nima: Everyone has it tough, right?
Adam: The celebrities doing the Imagine video, rich people, they’re not. I’m sorry, they’re not in this together with us. Their lives are basically unchanged.
Nima: Also, let me just briefly note that again, this is a jail, right? So the people who are incarcerated there have not yet gone through their trial, it’s a jail not a prison. So they have by and large not been convicted, they are maybe awaiting trial, or they are being held in jail because they don’t have the money to get bailed out, right? And so the idea that courts have not been hearing cases because of COVID is a major issue. That means there are people sitting in that jail in unhealthy, risky situations who may not need to be there at all, right?
Adam: Right. Not that it would make it okay, but they’re not even —
Nima: No, no, no, no, like not that it makes it okay, but still the idea that these are the same stresses as just anyone going through, you know, the pandemic, which is a super drag and stressful yes, for everyone, but the idea that people sitting in a St. Louis jail who can’t speak to their family, whose phone rates are exorbitant still, who can’t even have their cases heard, that somehow this is the same kind of stress. So naturally, an uprising bringing this to the attention not only of politicians, but the media, clearly is something that is effective, because we are now talking about it.
Adam: Yeah. And it’s not just that they’re ignoring it, they’re actively stoking the efforts to get people out of prison by demagoguing the stories about people released nominally for COVID related reasons. So another local affiliate in St. Louis that did a salacious report on the riots at the city jail is the CBS affiliate KMOV4. So by looking at how they’ve historically covered this, they had one 30 second report in November about COVID in prisons, but mostly focused on the CEOs. KMOV is pretty right-wing, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching them, they’re very much in the vein of a Sinclair. And they did reports demagoguing the release of people who were released for COVID related concerns, which is far worse than just ignoring the problem. So they had an article in April of 2020, headlined, “Mother of hit-and-run victim furious after suspect released from jail due to COVID-19 concerns.” That went on and they found a one off case of someone who was released for COVID involved in a hit and run accident, and then did a very manipulative story about the mother being upset about releasing too many of these people because of COVID-19.
Adam: They had another story that was really, really horrific in December of last year, with the headline, “Inmate released from jail tests positive for COVID-19, infects family members.” Where they started off with a very teary eyed story about an old lady dying because her son was released from jail despite having tested positive COVID-19 and the lesson wasn’t maybe we shouldn’t have kept him in jail for so long in the first place so he would get it, the lesson was they should have kept him in prison.
Adam: And locked him down from the general population.
Nima: This kind of Willie Hortonism is just rampant.
Adam: Is why they don’t care and this also played out with Governor Pritzker. So our guest today, Patrice Daniels, we’re going to talk to later, he is not in Missouri or obviously St. Louis, he is in Joliet which is right outside of Chicago, Illinois. Illinois, Missouri, are the states we’re focusing on today for the purposes of limiting the scope of this conversation, otherwise we wouldn’t have time to really get into it. Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, who was, you know, elected on this kind of progressive, pro-prison reform platform. He nominally released 4,000 people from prison, got the right-wing hit jobs because of it. A ton of these different articles. This is a local affiliate in Rockford, Illinois, with the headline, “Almost 4,000 inmates released from IL prisons, 64 convicted of murder,” that did the Willie Horton thing where he went down and talked about what evil salacious crimes they did, sex crimes, this and this and this. But if you read the fine print and local activists will tell you this, these were people who were going to get released anyway, he released them early by a matter of days or weeks and so activists were quick to note that the aggregate jail population was really unaffected. There was one report from Truthout by Brian Dolinar that says:
“A report put out by the Illinois-based advocacy organization Restore Justice documented how the state’s response to the pandemic has been ‘anemic.’ While some 3,000 people,” they say 3,000 not 4,000, “were released following COVID, most releases were due to their sentences already or close to ending. In the months after COVID hit, Illinois was actually releasing people from prison at a slower rate than the previous year.”
So even these kind of cosmetic efforts by quote-unquote “progressives” like Pritzker, which seemed good on paper, 4,000 seems like a lot, it’s almost 10 percent of the jail population, but what we don’t understand is that that 10 percent of the jail population is largely being replaced by new people coming into jail and prisons and it actually didn’t really change much. That even these token efforts, because, I mean, I would imagine probably when you sit down and counted out the number our guest uses and his organization uses, it says 1,000 people, but again, that’s not probably what it is, probably closer to a few hundred who maybe were the kind of net released because of COVID-19. Even when these token efforts are done, when you scratch the surface just a little bit or you get this kind of minor form of progressive humanitarian gesture, you get piled on by the right-wing media and so you had dozens of these articles about Pritzker releasing murderers and rapists. So this Willie Horton effect, as we’ll discuss with our guest, and we’ve talked about on the show a million times now, is one of the primary barriers of people operating, again, this is basic health, this is basic science, this is not even some radical left agenda, not that there’s anything wrong with those, we’re very much for those, but this is basic health 101 stuff, several other countries have done it, other states have done it more aggressively than Illinois, but the second you go out on a minor, minor limb —
Adam: Not to make excuses for Pritzker, because I do think, you know, he’s got $4 billion, he shouldn’t give a shit what they fuckin say about him to be honest. Definitely not making excuses, but a lot of people like prison reform in theory, but the second it happens, that tiny reptilian part of our brain that little id that Deathwish, kind of Dirty Harry part of our brain tickles and everybody reverts back to this bullshit about, ‘Oh you released a murder,’ this or that and then no politician is going to touch that within 1,000 feet and that fundamental moral hazard is why we have all this kind of witnessing and hand wringing and minor tweaks around the margins, but the US still has a prison population four or five times the global mean.
Nima: So our guest today, Patrice Daniels, an activist and revolutionary who has been in Illinois state prison since he was 18 years old, and because of that, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to speak to someone who is currently incarcerated, there’s lots of red tape and as a result, Adam did the interview alone. So without further ado, here is Adam’s interview with Patrice Daniels.
Adam: Can you start off by saying your name and what facility you’re in?
Patrice Daniels: My name is Patrice Daniels, and I am currently incarcerated at the Joliet Treatment Center in Joliet, Illinois. I’ve been here since it opened in November of 2017.
Adam: Now, by sheer coincidence, we had set up this call several weeks ago, but by sheer coincidence, yesterday, there was, what the media is calling a prison riot in Missouri.
Patrice Daniels: In St. Louis.
Adam: In St. Louis, right, largely over COVID conditions. I want to start by talking about what those conditions are where you are, what do you think people are not seeing that they need to see, and kind of just lay out what the grievances are because we’ve known this now for about a year, we knew this was going to be an issue, we knew this was going to be a ticking time bomb. It’s already killed thousands of incarcerated people. So lay out for our listeners, what the stakes are, and why they should care?
Patrice Daniels: Well, I would begin by saying that the reason why people should care is because of the fact that most of the people who are incarcerated are going to get out of prison.
Patrice Daniels: That’s number one. And the fact that people who are incarcerated are, in fact, people, right? So that should matter too that everybody who’s in prison is a person and has value and has worth as a human being. And so that’s the starting point, if you care about people, you should care about people in prison. The second thing that I would say is the thing that I find to be the most challenging aspect and feature and function of what they are calling COVID quarantines and restrictions in the Illinois Department of Corrections is that the psychological toll, and the emotional toll is taking on the population. Prison is already an extremely stressful environment. Prison is already a challenging environment. When you exacerbate it by the fact of an invisible virus floating around killing people, on top of the fact of them saying that in order to keep you safe, they’re going to exact on you more confinement and more restrictive conditions and circumstances, it does make for an extremely volatile situation and an explosive situation like what just happened in Missouri. It isn’t for lack of frustration that these things haven’t happened in the Illinois Department of Corrections. It just hasn’t happened on that magnitude or that scale. The way that these places are constructed and designed, Adam, it’s an impossibility to comply with the CDC guidelines and parameters for how you navigate a pandemic. Prisons are just not designed to deal with pandemics, the safest place for me or any other prisoner to be, in light of this, is at home. To have us in these spaces, in my opinion, every day it’s a potential death sentence. There’s just no way. People are stacked on top of each other. There isn’t enough sanitation supplies, staff members may or may not wear their masks, people may or may not wash their hands. It’s just an impossibility. We’re all breathing the same air. We’re all living in the same space. We’re all occupying the same room. The lunch tray that I will eat from today will go through ten sets of hands before it actually gets to me. There’s is no way around it. There’s just no way around it. And so the reality of it is, is that a lot of the things that IDoC claims or characterizes as safety measures and precautions are cosmetic.
Adam: Oh yeah, they’re totally cosmetic because they’re cosmetic in every other context, they’re exponentially more cosmetic in prisons. Right.
Patrice Daniels: Real quickly, Adam, understand this as well: this population, this facility is a designated mental health inpatient treatment facility as well. So don’t forget that part, right? The part that this is a psych facility, this is a facility with people who are diagnosed as having a severe or serious mental illness.
Patrice Daniels: So that also is a feature and an aspect we know that societally mental illness is on the rise, societally alcoholism is on the rise, drug addiction is on the rise, domestic violence is on the rise, violent crime within the household is on the rise. These things are rising in society. So you’re now dealing with a population of people who already have a mental illness, and who are already incarcerated and so yeah, it’s insane.
Adam: Setting aside all the cosmetic bullshit, I mean, one of the things we discussed at the top of the hour was that you have to, the cosmetic stuff is bullshit when your gym or restaurant does it, it’s exponentially so when its prisons, and the most elegant solution, as you note, and even so-called progressives or so-called liberal reformers are not willing to confront, is that the most elegant way of reducing human suffering was to engage in mass release of people incarcerated. Now in the United States, which already has 2.3 to 2.4 million people incarcerated at a rate five times the global average, so you don’t even have to get us to the global mean, you have to get us to halfway to the global mean. And one thing we also talk about is that this is not unprecedented. In Iran, they furloughed 40 percent of their total prison population, or roughly 100,000 people. Colombia and Afghanistan both released 10,000 prisoners, Somaliland released a few 100. So other countries did this back in March and April, when this first started. Now, some liberal governors did some token releases here and there. Supposedly progressive Governor Pritzker didn’t really do much at all, disappointing a lot of his liberal voters who wanted to see some action here. Have you seen, from your perspective, I mean, this is, you know, this is not out of the question, this is something that’s been done in other countries, but it’s so far removed from what would even be possible because in the United States you just can’t do it for cultural reasons, for I think racist reasons, etcetera. Can you talk briefly about whether or not that’s been something, again, even just starting off 1 percent or 2 percent or people that have been there for decades, such as yourself, is there any sense that that could ever happen? Has anyone talked about that? Any lawyers, any activists or is it just lock them up, throw them away, let them die?
Patrice Daniels: Well, the thing is, is that when this pandemic first began here in Illinois, the Department of Corrections, one of my friends and lead attorneys that continues to represent us on the implementation of Rasho v. Jeffries, which is a mental health lawsuit that I was one of the original plaintiffs on that began back in 2009, we actually won the settlement agreement in 2016. In April of last year, she had contacted me, her name is Amanda Antholt and she’s the senior counsel at Equip for Equality, she contacted me and asked me would I’d be willing to be part of Pritzker v. Money, which was a lawsuit that we immediately filed asking them to let everybody go. You know, that was the ultimate goal and objective, because we understood the fact that social distancing, and all these different measures would be an impossibility in a prison setting and so no, I am 100 percent in support of the idea that you should let people go in as much as you’re able to. The governor should have allowed, I haven’t seen a single person in this facility get a COVID related release from prison. Not a single one.
Adam: Yeah and this again, our supposedly progressive governor that we elected, right.
Patrice Daniels: Yeah, exactly. These numbers that he espouses at those press conferences every day about ‘I’ve let a thousand people,’ I don’t know any of them.
Adam: Yeah, I think he claimed about a thousand. Yeah, that’s right.
Patrice Daniels: Yeah, I don’t know any of them. Nobody I know has got out of prison because COVID, I mean, you have people in this facility, where I’m currently housed, who have tons of pre-existing conditions, people with breathing machines, people with heart problems, people with diabetes, with all kinds of medical issues and illnesses and none of those people have been released or considered for release for that matter.
Adam: Yeah, one of the things we did earlier is we broke down, what we showed is all the coverage of the St. Louis quote-unquote “prison riot,” we showed all the coverage of that which was all over the news, local news, Missouri news, Illinois news as far away as North Carolina, then we looked at the backlog of those same media outlets to see had they discussed the conditions of COVID in prisons, and they of course, by and large, did not. The lesson one takes away from this is that without, again, I don’t want to get you in trouble or I know people are gonna review this call, so I want to be careful how I phrase this, that the only way it seems that people care is when fires are set or there’s some kind of rebellion and that should not be the case and that that is the sort of last resort of people who are not being listened to or being actively muzzled and so you have this idea of no one knows what’s going on in prison, you know, its notoriously difficult to report in prison, not that that’s an excuse for the media outlets, because there are plenty of ways they could do it. So I want to talk about that frustration, you know, I think people have had that dream where they’re yelling, and no one can hear them.
Patrice Daniels: No, listen, the very words you just uttered is a refrain, it’s a common refrain in here, the only time people seem to pay attention to what’s going on with us, is if we’re violent or threatening guards. That’s the only language they understand, to sit down and try to be reasonable and sensible and say, well, you know, it’s in your best interest if A, B, C, or D, they are not trying to hear that shit out. And so the reality of it is, is that, unfortunately, and I say unfortunately only because you would think that if you make a compelling enough argument for why something is beneficial, you would think that people would do it. But the reality of it is that, in my opinion, official IDoC policy is, if it makes any kind of sense do not do it.
Adam: Well, right.
Patrice Daniels: That’s the reality and so you’re 100 percent right, the only reason people are having this discussion right now in mainstream media is because those guys, they see the visuals, that was a normal response to distress. It wasn’t a riot. What just happened in St. Louis was not a riot, that wasn’t a riot, that was a response to acute distress.
Patrice Daniels: And I’m telling you, that in the Illinois Department of Corrections, there are thousands of us who are actively in states of acute distress and the public needs to know that, they need to know that. I was watching recently on Fox, the local Chicago Fox 32 News, where they did this polling or surveying of viewers about the fact that we had been moved up to level 1B as a result of litigation for vaccines and vaccination and 99 percent of the people that reported back said that we should not have been moved up to 1B, right? Unfortunately, Adam, we have been thoroughly demonized.
Patrice Daniels: But the reality of it is, is that the truth is that prisons are primarily housed by people who are poor and sick. That’s the reality, poor, mentally ill people are the predominant segment of the population who are incarcerated, not vicious, vile, wanton, criminals and sociopaths. It’s just not true.
Adam: Yeah and of course, you saw this in several states, the most logical place you would start doing COVID vaccines, second maybe to old folks homes or retirement communities, would be jails and prisons because of the age and this really dovetails with a problem people have been talking about now for over a decade, which is the graying of prisons, which is that it’s not just that we put a shitload of people in prison and jail in this country, it’s that we give them these really long sentences that other countries don’t have. Other countries don’t have 70, 80 year olds dying in prison. So this dovetails with the graying of prison problem, in that we just have a culture of cowardice where no politician — I’m editorializing here, forgive me — where no politician wants to be the one that says, ‘Guys, this is ridiculous.’ Almost no other country has people in for this long. So, I want to talk about the graying of prisons. There’s been some reporting in the Chicago Tribune about the recent surge since December in the uptick of deaths from COVID in prisons and the elderly population, but our listeners may not know, in addition to this, that healthcare in prisons is already very substandard —
Patrice Daniels: Horrific.
Adam: And I want to talk a bit about that if you could.
Patrice Daniels: Yeah, I absolutely can. The reality of it is that, so it’s a two fold thing. So, you’re 100 percent right about this country being one of the few so-called civilized countries that incarcerates people at the rates that this country does as well as for the length of time that they do, and then secondly, as for health services, oh, my god, they’re horrific and they’re the the primary health care providers for the Illinois Department of Corrections, and they’re horrible. You have people who have been waiting to go to the outside hospital for major surgical procedures for years sometimes — it’s insane. And so the health care provider, Wexford, they’ve traditionally provided substandard care throughout the entirety of their contract with DoC and that’s been, you know, over 20 years, and so yes, healthcare services are already abysmal for people in corrections which the pandemic exacerbates that, and the point about this facility that I’m currently housed in, as I was saying, we don’t even have urgent care services at this facility. There is no healthcare, there is no hospital at this facility. A hospital is currently being built adjacent to this facility. So in fact, if you become acutely or chronically ill here, you have to be transferred to Stateville Correctional Center. I mean, this is a disastrous situation for anyone who gets sick. And so this ageing prison population, these horrific healthcare services and healthcare providers, combined with the fact that, as you say, there isn’t enough political will to actually challenge these practices and envision approaching these things differently, all of these things make for a volatile mix and a potentially explosive one. I’m telling you, Adam, if you’ve never believed nothing in life, IDoC, in my opinion and estimation, is at a breaking point and the prison population, at least here with this facility that I’m currently housed at, the prison population here has become increasingly disillusioned, increasingly frustrated, increasingly enraged, and something has to give, and it is my hope that sooner rather than later, the powers that be can be compelled into providing different quality of care across the board. If not, a lot of people are gonna hurt themselves, or end up being hurt and it’s just the truth. This is a very dangerous situation. It really is.
Adam: So let’s talk about what activists inside and outside are doing, what the kind of pressure points are, I think, to a lot of concerned types this was an issue for a brief time maybe last spring, and then everyone sort of just forgot, like a lot of stuff with coronavirus, it’s just okay, a bunch of poor people, predominantly black and brown, are gonna die. We’re kind of going to accept it, we’re gonna move on and sort of act like things are back to normal. You see this now with stuff being reopened in a lot of states even though the numbers are up, I think people are asserting. I want to talk about what activists are doing to get sustained awareness, to put pressure on these supposedly progressive prosecutors, supposedly progressive governors and attorneys general, is there any traction at all there? Is there any kind of movement, any hashtag, anything at all? Whatever it is that people can keep an eye out for and what kind of organizing is being done on the inside and I know you have to remain vague about that, I know these things are recorded and listened to obviously.
Patrice Daniels: Well, what I can definitively say is that the End Illinois Prison Lockdown movement is alive and well and underway. I can tell you that. Like I said, as somebody who was a plaintiff, and an ongoing spokesperson for the entire class of the SMI population by IDoC, Equipped for Equality, led by Amanda Antholt and Uptown People’s Law Center headed by Alan Mills, that they are always actively litigating on the behalf of, advocating for on the behalf of the incarcerated which is in pert how we were able to be moved up to level 1B for the vaccination. It had nothing to do with how progressive J.b. was. Because as you make the point, “so-called progressive,” he’s a so-called progressive. I think it’s very difficult for anybody who has a billion dollars to really be in touch with regular people, but the reality of it is that in Chicago, they are actively involved in trying to connect inside, outside people. The Unitarian Universalist Church in Chicago and Reverend Allison Farnum, I know her and Megan Shelby and Jason Lightman, these people I notice they are actively involved in trying to do some penpalling and some video visitation to try to relieve some of the stress and this frustration and this tension over these conditions and circumstances. I know that Parole Illinois is actively involved in trying to force and push legislators to actually change their policies and procedures and practices as it relates to how long people are incarcerated. So no, the reality is that there are groups, there are people. The Illinois Prison Project headed by Jennifer Soble, I mean, they have been filing clemencies out the wazoo trying to get people out. There’s some people who have been denied though, who have made COVID related requests, they have all been denied universally from my understanding. But there are groups, there are organizations, and myself, in here, in my space, I am constantly encouraging guys to let their family members know what’s going on. I would argue that what we are engaged in right now on this podcast is a form of direct action and it’s a blessing and a privilege and I’m greatly appreciative for your willingness to offer us this voice and this platform because remember, I am not the exception, there are thousands of men and women who are having the exact same experience that I’m having and are suffering.
Adam: From your observations, and I know this can be hard to tell, we do a lot of criticism of media on the show, and we did it earlier, is there any outlets that you’ve seen that have covered this that you think are doing a good job?
Patrice Daniels: I have never seen any journalists in mainstream media or anchor in mainstream media talk about the psychological, physical and emotional toll this lockdown and this pandemic has taken on the prisoner population. It just hasn’t happened. But they’ll lead with something about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West might have a divorce. Like, that’s prioritized.
Adam: Well, yeah, obviously.
Patrice Daniels: That’s very important, you do know that Adam, that’s very important. If Kim and Kanye stay together that’s important.
Adam: Yeah, it is a national security matter of utmost importance.
Patrice Daniels: Exactly. Except for the fact that my next door neighbor has acute diabetes and it’s just horrible.
Adam: One of the things that’s the kind of primary barrier to get people to give a shit, which you come across a lot in any kind of prison reform or criminal justice reform, which is that a lot of liberals they like reform in theory, but then when coronavirus hits and you say, well, guys, we need to actually do that now, this isn’t a fifty year project, we need to start releasing people now, and then the second that happens it’s pretty much radio silent. I want to talk a bit about the sort of abstract versus reality, which is I think people assume that everyone in prison is there for the proverbial two joints and that people really don’t want to confront the messy fact that there are people that are incarcerated who are accused of crimes that we consider to be heinous or evil or whatever and that you have to sort of confront that, for the most part, in terms of number of years in prison, that is going to be who we’re going to have to talk about, regardless of whether or not they’re in their sixties and seventies and eighties, that there’s this dehumanization of anyone who’s there for a so-called violent offense or non drug offense, that we sort of silo off the drug users and everyone else can go off and die. I think this pandemic really confronted, had made people confront that messiness and I want to talk about the dehumanization involved in that process and if you could talk directly to one of these kind of fence sitting liberals about the actual act of releasing people from jail, rather than the kind of abstract reform that feels good and makes you put up the Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, but doesn’t really require any difficult decisions, what would you say to that person in terms of the humanity of those in prison, and the value, that going to jail is not should not be a death sentence, which for many, for COVID it has been?
Patrice Daniels: Well, what I would say first and foremost is that for some of us, the only reason we’re languishing and rotting away in prison, is primarily because of the fact that we were born into or birthed into a set of circumstances that were not of our choosing, that we’re not about doing. That is the reality. And so, the fact of the matter is that ultimately, I would say to those people that you should know the narrative, you should understand that the people who are populating these spaces are in fact somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother, somebody’s father, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s husband, somebody’s wife, real people populate prison and this idea or notion that people come out of the womb predisposed to incarceration, is just ridiculous or the fact that by virtue of what someone has done, that that automatically disqualifies them from being redeemed in some way, shape, fashion or form. This is a ludicrous notion. If you think about it, think about the fact that people are in this constant state of evolution, a lot of people change by virtue of what they learn or discover about the myths about what they believe to be a cultural standard or norm and once they learn something different, they began to respond, to react differently to those things. So I just push back and disagree with this idea that there’s segments of the prison population that do not deserve the opportunity to redeem themselves or to get out of the spaces. I think that is a ridiculous notion. The fact of the matter is that so long as anyone is breathing, they have the opportunity for redemption, they have the opportunity for change, they have the opportunity for a different outcome and a different future. That’s the reality. So I’m somebody who believes in chance, and you should give people chances and opportunities and you should provide the apparatus, the structural apparatus in place, in society, in order for people to be successful post-incarceration, because this is the other sad truth, Adam, most people would not be in these spaces if the situations and circumstances where they come from were properly addressed. Where their family members are employed or their communities and neighborhoods not substandard, they wouldn’t come to prison in the first place. So what I find insidious, is that they invest all of this money after you’re in jail, when they should be investing this money prior to you getting into the police car in the first place because had they done both things from the beginning there wouldn’t be a need for this in the end. You understand what I’m saying?
Patrice Daniels: So, people’s priorities are completely backwards. I was watching recently, where they were talking about budgetary cuts in the city government, you know what the first thing was on the table for them to chop? After school programming, pre-K education, WIC, food stamps. These were the first things that we’re going to cut. But we’re gonna fund a new police training academy on the west side of Chicago while we shutter all the schools on the south side of Chicago, all the high schools on the south side of Chicago. And so the reality of it is, what kind of message does it send to the kids in Inglewood, right? That the police training academy is prioritized over their education. But that’s how you get people doing the things that they do, that ends up in the police car, that ultimately ended up in them going through the system and ending up where I’m at. And so for those so-called progressives or liberals or progressive liberals or whatever label you want to give them, that’s what I would say to them, get your priorities straight, understand that people in prison are people, right? And lastly, put your money where your mouth is, put your money where your mouth is.
Patrice Daniels: I am someone who continues to remain optimistic because I understand that ultimately, justice will prevail one way or another. As the late brother Malcolm said, “By any means necessary.”
Adam: All right, well, that’s a good place to end. I really, really appreciate your time. They’re probably going to cut us off soon. Patrice Daniels, activist, revolutionary, has been incarcerated in Illinois prisons since the age of 18, 26 years ago. Thank you so much for joining us.
Patrice Daniels: Thank you very much. I appreciate this. This is an awesome opportunity.
Adam: You know, one of the things he said, we’re all sort of very glib about this, you know, I think a lot about every time I go through Joliet, which I went through a lot on my way to Springfield back when I used to visit there a lot, is that you go by the minor league baseball stadium, and the minor league baseball team is the Joliet Slammers and the logo for the minor league baseball team for the Slammers is a prison wall with barbed wire and the Slammers is in reference to their famous state prison there. They used to be called the Jailbirds, they changed that to Slammers, and their logo is a person in a convict outfit. So, I think about that a lot when I think about how we how we view prisoners in this society, which is that they’re expendable, and they’re a fucking joke and it’s all very kind of funny and you hear his story and hear the story of what goes on in there and you realize that the story of people in jails and prisons is fundamentally a media story. It’s a story about who we decide to care about and who we decide not to care about and there’s always these things you should care about. You should care about this famine here, this ethnic cleansing here, there’s always something that people say you should care about and the thing is, is that that which is right in your backyard that we fund, which is ethnic cleansing, make no mistake, these are internment camps throughout this country, it is a racialized form of dispossession, that it’s just so routine, it’s not only ignored, but it’s viewed as a punchline. If an alien species came down and saw this, I think they would be shocked at how glib we are about much of this and it’s just baked into the cake.
Nima: And that’s why it’s also so sinister to see the response to articles that even bear the most basic level of humanity toward people who are incarcerated in this country as if they weren’t there, they wouldn’t have to worry about this, as if a death sentence is fine for anyone, right? For anyone in that situation, which, as we’ve constantly been saying, and you just said Adam, this is a racialized system of total injustice and so the idea that ‘Eh well, what are you going to do about it? No biggie,’ that’s why you see so many news outlets across the country, not talking about this ever until there is something big like an uprising, like — god forbid — a broken window or a fire set, that then it becomes news and then maybe sometimes there is some indication of the humanity being caged. Now with that, we also do want to note that there are some newspapers, so we’re still just going to focus on Missouri and Illinois because that’s what we’ve been talking about today, so the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, and also the NPR affiliate WBEZ have been covering COVID in prisons, not constantly, but at least occasionally, over the past year. The total blackout really is on local TV news, as well as national news. This is not something that is elevated to national news stories, ABC, CBS, NBC, you barely see this and so we do just want to note that there are some people doing really good work. I know we often don’t talk about anything positive, but we do absolutely need to note that there are people really doing good work on this currently.
Adam: Yeah, if we’re gonna dump on a lack of coverage, I think it’s important to show that the gap really here is between, and again, even the publications we mentioned, like the Tribune, sometimes that have covered this, it’s not a lot of coverage, I don’t think that’s because of the reporters, I think, again, it’s just not very sexy, it’s not very topical and we have broad cultural biases against people in prisons. But the problem with our society is that from a political standpoint, if local TV news is not covering something, and local radio and national TV news is not covering something, it may as well not exist.
Nima: It means it’s not happening.
Adam: That is the primary political thing people were, Governor Pritzker doesn’t, you know, he cares way more about the local news going after him necessarily than an article about the demonization of prisons in the Tribune on page 75, so, you know, as much as there are good reporters trying to highlight this, the incentives are still all wrong. It wasn’t really until the Minneapolis police station was burned down that suddenly everyone’s heart bled about racism, right? That is, unfortunately, the incentive structure we have in this country to a large extent, it’s not until people resort to these extreme measures that suddenly we have these quote-unquote “wake up calls,” and you saw one of the local St. Louis reports calling the riot a wake up call and how many different wake up calls are people going to need to give a shit about these conditions and to give a shit about the dehumanization and racism of the American carceral system. You’re not in a position to criticize those means if you make it, this is again, not a very original point, it’s something that Martin Luther King talked about all the time, you’re not in a moral position to scold or condemn those means while at the same time not providing any other avenue of having people hear them and so, bigger, more important, more urgency, you know, nursing homes have been ignored and largely forgotten in many ways but there’s been far far more journalism around that, far more TV reports around that, because it affects the quote-unquote “respectable” citizens. So maybe we should care, maybe editors and TV producers should care about these things before they riot, not only after, and then therefore eliminating the need for that uprising. But before we go, I also wanted to give a shout out to organizations like Parole Illinois that were mentioned on our call and the End Illinois Prison Lockdown Coalition, if you get a chance definitely check out their work. They’re the ones trying to push this forward into the public consciousness.
Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We’ll be back soon with another full length episode. Thanks, everyone for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Special thanks to Sarah Lazare for her help with this News Brief. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, February 10, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.