How Coronavirus is Disrupting the Death Penalty

Reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice and immigration.

With a signature from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado on Monday became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. But the governor’s long-planned intervention comes at a moment when capital punishment is already at a standstill across the nation for a very different reason: coronavirus.

The growing global pandemic—reaching 163 countries and more than 15,000 deaths—has at least temporarily saved two condemned men from execution in Texas, with more delays sought elsewhere. The pandemic has also stopped trials in which the death penalty was being sought. It has even upended the process for defense attorneys to try to exonerate their clients facing capital punishment.

“Almost every aspect of legal representation is at a halt in the judicial system,” said Amanda Marzullo, a consultant with the Innocence Project. “People are effectively unable to prepare and investigate their cases.”

The first delay came in Texas, where an appeals court pushed back the scheduled March 18 lethal injection of John Hummel. The Tarrant County man’s lawyers arguedthat the number of people gathering to witness and carry out the execution would risk spreading the virus. Days later, the same court postponed the March 25 execution of Tracy Beatty, giving him a similar 60-day delay “in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency.”

In both cases, prosecutors opposed the requests to call off the executions, and Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said they could still safely carry out the lethal injections, even after they’d barred visitors from prisons across the state.

In addition to halting executions, the coronavirus has also disrupted an exoneration. In Pennsylvania, Walter Ogrod was about to be released after more than two decades on death row for the murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Prosecutors had agreed he was “likely innocent.” Then, the 55-year-old began coughing and developed a fever—symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. Over the weekend, a judge ordered that he be transferred from death row to a hospital outside prison.

Executions are frequently put on hold due to Supreme Court decisions and lethal injection drug shortages, but rarely do natural events play such a disruptive role. One example was in 2017, when Juan Castillo’s execution was delayed after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. (He was executed the following year despite his long-standing claims of innocence.)

And more stays may be coming. Last week, lawyers for Oscar Smith asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to delay his June 4 execution. They said they plan to ask Gov. Bill Lee for clemency but cannot put together an application “without putting themselves and others at risk” of contracting the virus. Executions are also scheduled for May in Missouri and June in Ohio, although the latter state lacks lethal injection drugs. Several other defense lawyers told The Marshall Project they plan to ask for delays.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, did not find the delays surprising.

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What Coronavirus Quarantine Looks Like in Prison“I cannot help but linger on the faces of the elderly prisoners and think about how they are unlikely to survive this.”

A few weeks ago, I found myself watching the TV news from here in a Washington state prison, while drinking my morning coffee. This was my normal routine. Apparently, there had been some sort of an outbreak in China that officials were starting to call the coronavirus.

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention. Like most things, I figured it was far away—everything can feel especially far away when you’re in prison—and would hardly have an effect on me or those around me. 

In fact, my fellow prisoners and I were essentially joking about how the world was coming to an end. A good friend of mine and I are huge fans of apocalyptic movies and shows, so we started to shoot the breeze about how a zombie virus had taken hold in China and would soon spread across the globe. I remember telling him in jest, “This is it, my friend. We better stock up on food and be ready with a plan of defense.” He laughed. We discussed how we could make body armor out of magazines and where we would steal the tape to do so.

But before long, we learned from TV not only that the virus had spread throughout the world, but also that the state of Washington had become the United States’s ground zero. As each day passed, the numbers continued to get worse. The nursing home where the national news was saying that so many people were infected was less than 20 miles away from us.

Like everyone in the free world, those of us on the inside began to worry about our families, especially our older folks, and their safety in the face of an unknown predator. Even in the best of times, it’s hard to know how our families are doing.

And then we started to wonder about our own safety. What measures were being taken to safeguard us from the spread of the virus within the crowded prison walls? We knew that on the outside, people were buying everything they could to prepare for disaster, especially toilet paper.

Toilet paper scarcity is no stranger to us—having more than two rolls in your room at any given time is an infraction—so we became focused on the things we weren’t prepared for, and just how little we each have in our cells for protection. We don’t have cleaning wipes, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (it’s contraband), or anything else that the CDC is recommending citizens use to prevent spreading the virus. The only cleaning solution we have is a mild “all-purpose cleaner” that is not germicidal and, rumor has it, is safe enough to drink.

As the virus continued to spread in the outside world, I along with many others inside waited for instructions on what we would do to keep the prison prepared for when it came knocking on our door—or rather came knocking on our sally ports, metal bars, and barbed-wire fences. 

Prisoners and corrections officers alike inquired about what was being done to disinfect the facility. The unit porters (prisoners who work as janitors) usually can’t use bleach on the common areas. Having a small amount of bleach, even if you’re just using it to clean, will get you in trouble. 

Eventually though, I noticed that the porters were given spray bottles filled with diluted bleach to wipe the living areas down. Nevertheless, one cannot expect someone who is paid at most $55 a month for full-time work to do a thorough, painstaking job of cleaning. 

On one wall, non-alcohol based sanitizer was taped there without a proper dispenser; it’s just a useless substance sloshing around in a plastic pouch. Even things like cleaning rags can be impossible to find, which is difficult to comprehend, as there are large bins of old scraps in our clothing room. Possessing too many rags is also considered contraband, and could get you an infraction, which could mean losing recreation or getting sent to solitary.

The DOC has sent out messages to prisoners via paper handouts instructing us to keep our hands clean, not to touch our faces, and to clean our cells. But how can we do any of this if the proper cleaning equipment is criminalized? 

I was not surprised last week when an employee who works in the living units opposite of mine tested positive for COVID-19. After that, they posted signs down by the phones instructing us to put a sock—yes, like you wear on your foot—over the phone receiver before using it in order to avoid spreading germs. There was no mention of where these socks were meant to come from; we’re only allowed a few socks at any given time or we risk being written up. 

The most drastic measure they’ve taken so far is putting the entire side of the prison where the employee worked on “quarantine.” My fellow prisoners on quarantine are functionally on lockdown, which is what happens when there’s something like a fight. They are confined to their windowless cells for almost the entire day.

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New TDCJ visitation/mail policies punitive and arbitrary

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is changing its visitation, mail and commissary policies for Texas prison inmates in ways which seem arbitrary and unnecessary.

Let’s start with visitation. TDCJ will begin running a drug-sniffing dog past all potential visitors, even children, and deny entry if the dogs alert. If a dog alerts twice, that person will be denied entry permanently.

The move is being billed as preventing contraband smuggling, but that doesn’t justify it. For starters, nearly all the contraband smuggling is done by guards, and the biggest problem is the agency can’t fire them because they wouldn’t have enough people to staff the prisons.

Consider this example from the French Robertson Unit in Abilene last year:

A list obtained by KTXS from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said that 51 French Robertson Unit staff members were disciplined and one of those staff members was fired for bringing in contraband between January 1, 2013 to July 3, 2019, a six-and-a-half-year span.

Moreover,

The TDCJ also said that out of the 400 staff members at the French Robertson Unit, the number of contraband disciplines “are below average for disciplinary action and contraband issues as compared to the other 103 state prisons in Texas.” 

So one staffer out of 400 was fired for bringing in contraband to the prison, while 51 were allowed to continue working there. And that’s “below average” for other units. So it takes a lot of chutzpah for TDCJ to blame families for contraband! That’s absurd.

Anyway, why not just run the drug dog past inmates before they go back to their cell, or search them, for that matter, if need be. If you’re trying to find contraband, the policy makes no sense.

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Bootleg film shows Florida prison in all its danger, squalor. An inmate shot it on the sly

Scott Whitney, inmate No. U21924, filmed a documentary on the Florida prison system and nobody knew.

At least the guards didn’t.

Over a period of years, the convicted drug trafficker used specially rigged, almost cartoonishly oversize eyeglasses fitted with hidden cameras and a hollowed-out Bible with a lens peeking through the O in HOLY to capture the gritty, ugly, violent world inside Martin Correctional Institution, one of Florida’s more notoriously dangerous prisons.

The video was smuggled out of the prison and given to the Miami Herald.
Read more here: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/special-reports/florida-prisons/article235623292.html#storylink=cpy

Meat Executives Plead Guilty to Selling Bad Beef to 32 Prisons

Two meatpacking plant executives pleaded guilty Tuesday to their role in a scheme to sell 800,000 pounds of adulterated meat to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, announced U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Erin Nealy Cox.

According to plea papers, the two men admitted to selling uninspected, misbranded, or adulterated meat–including whole cow hearts labeled as “ground beef”–to 32 prisons in 18 states.

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I Host a Popular Podcast. I’m Also in Prison.

he sun shines brightly through the gated windows so I grab a pair of Sony headphones and the Tascam (a portable audio recorder) and leave the office with my co-worker, John “Yahya” Johnson, an intellectual Muslim brother out of Oakland. Curious as to how many people behind bars have seen the romance movie “The Notebook,” we venture outside to the yard to find out. I walk up to the first guy I see, someone waiting on the sidelines to play basketball. 

“Hey man, can I interview you about the classic romance movie called ‘The Notebook?’”

“I’ve never seen ‘The Notebook.’” 

“So what’s the best romance movie you have seen?” 

“’Baby Boy.’” 

I laugh because Baby Boy, an urban tale about a childish young man who needs to grow up in order to raise his son alongside the mother, is not what I would consider a classic romance movie. 

Then I remove a release form (to have the man I’d just interviewed sign) from a green binder with an Ear Hustle logo stuck on the cover.

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In My Prison, Summer is “Ticket Season”

“If you move the wrong way—ticket. You look the wrong way—ticket. Breathe—ticket.”

There isn’t much that we can do here in a Level 5 maximum-security prison—which is where they send us unmanageable inmates, to seclude us even further. So I write, read, watch TV and occasionally look out my window, watching the prisoners from the other part of the facility out on the yard: their gatherings, their ball games, the new faces.

All of this I do to pass the time before “the Rush.” You’d think the Rush would mean gang jumpings, stabbings, someone sneaking up you, etc.— which all happens, but that’s not what I’m talking about. No, this is about officers obsessively writing tickets. These are the little infractions that keep us in line, the same as the parking or speeding tickets that police stop civilians for. If you’re not liked—ticket. If you move the wrong way—ticket. You look the wrong way—ticket. Breathe—ticket. And instead of paying a fine or fee to the court system, we lose our appliances and our right to participate in all activities. READ THE REST