Things are tense in the prisons. As the COVID-19 virus sweeps across the land, there are calls to release prisoners, and concerns about the welfare of prisoners, guards and the communities in which the prisons are located.
Have we warehoused men and women in fertile nests for the virus to spread?
Will there be outbreaks in the prisons?
It’s hard to imagine there will not be.
So what will we do about it?
There’s confusion at the national level.
At his daily press harangue on Saturday – I dare not call it a briefing – President Trump announced in his recursive way that he didn’t like what he was hearing about state’s releasing prisoners before the virus hits full bore. “I don’t like that,” he said. He promised to do something about it.
Never mind federalism, that same hoary constitutional doctrine that tied the president’s hands when it came to distributing ventilators and medical equipment to the states.
No sooner had the president expressed his preference that prisoners remain in place, than Attorney General Robert Barr issued a vague directive to the Bureau of Prisons to release some, but not all, prisoners in federal custody to home conferment.
Now that’s something the president can do something about. If he chooses to. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t act. As COVID-19 cases blossom in the prisons, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to send the infected back in to the communities.
There’s no good choice here.
The president and state governors are not the only ones with difficult, nay, impossible choices to make. I say the toughest choices of all belong to rank and file prison guards. The men and women who go into cell blocks and prison dormitories each day to work with inmates.
There was a scuffle at Connecticut’s Carl Robinson Correctional Institution the other day. Prisoners’ movements are restricted now. There are reports of prisoners and staff testing positive at various penal institutions around the state. Prisoners don’t trust guards, guards don’t trust administrators. Yet the daily needs of prisoners and guards must be met.
The men at Carl Robinson live in dorms. Two guards supervising 180 men living in close quarters.
What’s going to happen when one of these institutions becomes a hot spot?
Neither inmates nor staff knows. Firsts were thrown. Some prisoners were moved to other institutions. Whether peace obtains there today is unknown.
In the London Plague of 1665, city officials issued an order that any person, and their family, who showed signs of the Plague were to be locked in their home, and a magistrate placed outside the home to make sure no one left or entered. A large red cross was painted on the door of such a home, and the words “Lord have Mercy upon us,” placed on the door.
If you entered such a home, you did not leave it again. At least that was the law.
But the law was not well enforced. Some magistrates took bribes to let family members escape. Sometimes occupants of a sequestered home simply escaped. I’m not sure what they did at the prisons.
I’ve represented a lot of men and woman who are inmates in the Connecticut prisons. And I’ve represented a lot of prison guards. The image of a guard as a sadist torturer of prisoners is a fiction. Most guards care deeply about their wards.
So what will a guard do when the pandemic strikes?
Will he go to work, thus exposing himself and his family to risk? Or will she stay home, leaving the institution short-staffed, and prisoners, perhaps, uncared for?
How to weigh these conflicting imperatives?
London’s experience with home quarantines provides an answer of sorts. I can imagine a world in which a compassionate guard leaves the prison door ajar, while refusing to enter. When faced with the choice to sacrifice himself or his family by going to work, or staying home, many will stay home.
But doing so will put the inmates, men and women to whom the guards are bound by humane ties, at risk.
The only way out? To do by fiat what the law will not do. Open the doors and walk away, hoping, against all hope, for the best.
I, for one, hope it does not come to that.