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Dr. Yusef Salaam of ‘Exonerated 5’: Jails, Prisons ‘Petri Dish’ for COVID-19

Dr. Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully incarcerated in 1990 for a crime he did not commit, implored elected officials and law enforcement to do more to combat the spread of COVID-19 in America’s prisons and jails. Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP.

Dr. Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully incarcerated in 1990 for a crime he did not commit, implored elected officials and law enforcement to do more to combat the spread of COVID-19 in America’s prisons and jails. Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP.

One of Dr. Yusef Salaam’s most vivid memories of being falsely incarcerated in 1990 for the rape of a Central Park jogger, and one that has resurfaced in recent weeks, is when an elder in prison told him, "If you ever get sick, eat an onion." In prison is where Salaam learned about other homeopathic remedies for supporting a healthy immune system, such as eating cloves of garlic, as a way of staving off infectious diseases than can spread virally among the incarcerated.

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Photo courtesy Yusef Salaam

Living under such unusual, high-pressure circumstances and without access to adequate health care or nutrition, Salaam told the Jackson Free Press last week, has forced the nation’s prisoners to cultivate a kind of secret knowledge that others on the outside might not possess.

“One of the things that I think is a saving grace for the inmate population is that we’ve been able to do things that are very unconventional,” Salaam said.

For Salaam, exonerated in 2002, this quality represents a harbinger of resilience and hope for the country’s incarcerated population, who are left fending for themselves as COVID-19 threatens to infect overcrowded jails and prisons, while those in power are not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus among some of the most vulnerable populations.

A Ticking Time Bomb in Mississippi Jails and Prisons

Salaam, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison at age 15 for the rape of Trisha Meili along with four other innocent underage boys in New York City, has been working as a prison-reform advocate since his exoneration. During a phone interview Friday from his Georgia home, Salaam urged elected officials and law enforcement to do more to prevent the rapid spread of novel coronavirus.

COVID-19 has already infected police departments from San Francisco to Chicago and Memphis—killing one officer in Detroit—and continues to devastate the 9,000 people inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail after an infected corrections officer brought the disease into the facility. Harvey Weinstein even contracted the virus in Rikers.

In Mississippi, where 19,000 people are serving sentences behind state prison bars and 5,200 people languish for months or years in county jails, waiting for their day in court, advocates describe the situation as a ticking time bomb. In addition to advocating for inmate release—particularly those at highest risk for suffering complications from the disease, including elderly and sick inmates—they are also urging law enforcement to implement preventative measures on the front end, like changing arrest protocols, to prevent the infection from entering jails.

“This is one of the worst nightmares that anyone could ever imagine, and it’s times 10 when it comes to the prison industrial complex,” Salaam said, describing the threat of COVID-19 infection in jails and prisons. “If someone (in) the prison in their unit gets sick, the likelihood that all people in that unit will get sick is there and is real. This is a tragedy.”

“I think the prison industrial complex is considered at this point probably a petri dish,” he added.

Low-level Arrests Continue in Jackson, Hinds County

Because police officers are in regular and frequent contact with people in the communities they serve, they are at particular high risk for becoming infected and spreading COVID-19. As such, some police departments are changing their policing strategies to curb the disease’s spread.

As of March 17, the Philadelphia (Pa.) Police Department is delaying arrests for some non-violent offenses, including prostitution, bench warrants (sometimes called “failure to appear”), narcotics possession and car theft. Before announcing that one of its officers had tested positive, the Memphis Police Department began instructing police officers to write citations for misdemeanors instead of arresting people.

On March 19, the Jackson Free Press asked the Jackson Police Department if it would make changes to its policing protocols in light of the acute public-health risks that novel coronavirus poses to local law enforcement and the criminal-justice system.

In a phone interview following a JPD press conference announcing two recent drug-trafficking arrests, JPD Officer Sam Brown responded that policing and arrests in Jackson would look the same, the only difference being that the department is supplying its officers and precincts with sanitary supplies in line with Centers for Disease Control recommendations. These include masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and other disinfectants, which officers are trained in how to use, he said.

A day later, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, who was elected last fall on a decarceral platform, told the Jackson Free Press that his office was working to identify and recommend certain pretrial detainees for conditional release. He said that his office had identified about 25 people who may be eligible for release from county jails on either reduced bond, electronic monitoring, release on one’s own recognizance, among other conditions.

By press time, Owens said his office was still working to fulfill the Jackson Free Press’ request for a list of inmates who had been released, including their original charges and the conditions for their release. Owens also did not detail in a phone interview on March 23 the specific criteria his office employed in identifying whom to recommend for release.

But recent jail-count data indicate a drop in the Hinds County jail population of unconvicted people waiting for trial. Whereas the inmate population has tended to hover between 470 to 500 in recent months—reaching as high as 597 on Sept. 30—Hinds County jails began to see a slight drop in their populations around March 12, at 457 inmates. That number increased slightly in the days following, but since March 18—two days after Hinds County declared a state of emergency—the jail population has gone down significantly.

On March 25, the inmate population inside Hinds County was 415, the lowest it has been since Sept. 1 and a 15% decrease from the highest March jail count of 487.

Despite the drop in the jail population, however, local police departments are still arresting and booking people for low-level or non-violent crimes, including simple drug possession charges, traffic ordinance violations, failures to appear, and probation violations.

For example, on March 22, law enforcement arrested Christopher Brown, 29, for possession of a controlled substance and Dushun King, 41, for possession of a controlled substance and violating a traffic ordinance. On March 24, the Clinton Police Department arrested and jailed 43-year-old Eric Dawson for a bad check. Since March 21, MDOC has arrested and booked three people in Hinds County jails on probation-violation charges.

During separate phone calls on March 23, the Jackson Free Press asked the JPD and the district attorney to comment on these recent arrests. Both agencies asked the Jackson Free Press to send them written arrest details so that they could respond appropriately.

By press time, Brown and King no longer appeared in the jail roster, nor do their charges appear on their inmate detail pages. The arresting agency was also removed from their inmate pages. The JPD did not respond to the Jackson Free Press’ repeated requests to confirm whether or not JPD was the arresting agency in Brown and King’s cases or this paper’s requests to discuss recent arrests for low-level offenses.

This morning, Owens confirmed that his office did not have anything to do with releasing Brown and King release from jail. “I didn’t make any calls about them, I didn’t have an opportunity to,” Owens said, explaining that his office was unable to follow up on the arrests because they had to deal with other pressing issues.

“It’s worth finding out though, frankly, because I have some concerns (about) what they were registering for, and I’m wondering what was happening there, because I was under the impression that they were not arresting people for low-level stuff, but I don’t know,” he said.

By press time, the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office said it was still working to confirm which law enforcement agency arrested Brown and King.

Salaam: ‘We Know People Don’t Even Have Boots’

The Jackson Free Press asked Salaam how to address some residents’ concerns that crimes may go up if people are released during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m actually more concerned with the causes of those crimes, meaning what causes people to respond the way that they respond,” Salaam said.

He pointed to markers of systemic oppression, from the legacy of redlining to poverty and disinvestment in communities in other ways, which can drive people to resort to illicit or risky actions to survive.

“It’s one thing to talk about criminal activity without the conversation that needs to be had about how these criminal activities began in the first place,” Salaam said. “It’s one thing to tell people to stop being poor or to pull themselves from the bootstraps, and we know people don’t even have boots.”

Mississippi, which currently ranks as the poorest state in the nation and has one of the worst hunger rates, also has the second highest incarceration rate. It recently surpassed Oklahoma’s incarceration rates after that state implemented reforms last year, including reclassifying simple drug-possession charges to misdemeanors, which resulted in a drop in Oklahoma’s prison population.

“If we really want meaningful change, we have to really talk about the real issues and not some of the outskirts or outgrowths that have come about because of those issues,” Salaam said. He pointed to law enforcement’s treatment of the opioid epidemic, which has drawn attention for affecting poor and middle-class whites, as a public-health issue rather than a criminal issue as another example of how implicit bias manifests itself in whom law enforcement prosecute and why.

Mississippi Jails and Prisons at Risk for COVID-19

In addition to reducing the number of people who are arrested and booked into jails, Mississippi State Public Defender André DeGruy stressed the importance of releasing those who are most at risk of suffering from COVID-19 complications. He also emphasized the urgency of medically screening guards, lawyers and new inmates before they enter facilities.

“The problem with the jail is not that anybody in there, at least prior to when we started getting (COVID-19) cases two weeks ago, nobody in the jail is going to have it unless someone brings it into them. Nobody in the prison is going to have it unless someone brings it into them,” DeGruy said. “So if you cut down the number of people you’re bringing in, or the number of people going in, then you’re going to reduce the risk.”

“People ought to be concerned about it,” he said, adding that “there are no doubt some jails that are doing everything right.” DeGruy pointed out that an investigator had recently revealed to him that the Madison County jail was checking temperatures of people going into the jail.

Neither Hinds County jails nor the Jackson Police Department are taking temperatures of their employees before they work.

“If we can get a lot of the old and the sick people out before (COVID-19 spread) happens, when it happens, it won’t be as detrimental,” DeGruy added. “If we’re moving people who are getting sick out of jails into hospitals, that I think, for the whole state, is worse than before they get sick, getting people out of jail and into some safe place.”

DeGruy noted that Sylvia Cook, 65, has been in jail since Feb. 10 on two prescription-forgery charges as well as for providing false information to a law enforcement officer. He questioned why Cook was still in jail during the COVID-19 outbreak, given her age and the fact that her charges indicate she is a “probable drug addict” rather than a violent offender.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has not responded to the Jackson Free Press’ repeated interview requests. The agency had previously listed a detailed “frequently asked questions” page on its website, which stated what measures MDOC was taking to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Although the page is no longer available on the MDOC website as of press time, the agency sent the Jackson Free Press an earlier condensed, three-page FAQ sheet regarding the measures on March 18. They include taking the temperatures of correctional staff, allowing inmates to use the “sick call system” to report symptoms of illness and access medical care, temporary family visit suspensions, and no longer accepting new inmates into MDOC facilities with “limited exceptions.”

At press time, it is unclear whether or not any MDOC guards have stopped working over COVID-19 concerns or whether any guards or inmates have tested positive, been referred to testing, or otherwise shown symptoms since MDOC made the FAQ sheet available.

“There’s no way to know. We have to just assume that what the Department of Corrections tells us they’re doing is what they’re doing. Making sure people have soap, have hand sanitizer, practicing the safest precautions they can,” DeGruy said.

Dr. Salaam called on elected officials to exercise political courage and implement novel strategies to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in America’s prisons and jails, which will otherwise “catch on (like) wildfire in a very bad way.”

“We can’t just have business as usual. This is a very highly unusual time that we’re living in, which calls for very highly unusual measures and very highly unusual practices as we move forward as a society,” Salaam said.

“And hopefully this informs us as we move forward also on what we need to have in place, just in case, so when the next outbreak happens, when the next virus happens, how do we respond, and how prepared are we in the future for something like that,” he said.

Salaam: ‘We Can Become Better’

Yusef Salaam said that the events of the last two weeks have shown America a very small taste of what the nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated people, who live in fear and in confinement for months or years, have endured on a daily basis.

“They’re getting the opportunity to see on a very small scale what it is like to be in solitary confinement and how oppressive solitary confinement is, how unjust solitary confinement is. We are human beings who crave humanity … human touch,” Salaam said. He added that he was particularly concerned about the impact that suspension of visits with family are having on incarcerated people who rely on crucial familial and community support to survive harsh prison and jail terms.

Lack of urgency on the part of the criminal-justice system to curb the spread of COVID-19 sends a harmful message to the millions of incarcerated men and women who can do nothing but shelter in place, as they already do, as the likelihood of contracting the disease increases.

“It feels like when we, as people who were in prison, felt and knew that we were not seen as full human beings, full citizens. It feels like that all over again,” Salaam said. “I can’t turn away from that, I can’t turn a blind eye to that, because I was once part of that population.”

“We far too often and far too long have been living in a society where we’ve been locking people up and throwing away the key and forgetting about them. These are still human beings,” he added.

“We can become better as a result of this. We don’t have to still be the worst of us, we can become the best of us,” Salaam implored to leaders.

To Mississippi prisoners and their families, Salaam had this to say: “My biggest message is to not give up hope. And I know that that sounds cliché, but I want people to not give up hope, I want people to understand that we are resilient, that we have come-back power. That we are able to rise above the occasion.”

Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Read about announced closings and delays in Mississippi here. Read MEMA’s advice for a COVID-19 preparedness kit here.

Email information about closings and other vital related logistical details to [email protected].

Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin. Seyma Bayram is covering the outbreak inside the capital city and in the criminal-justice system. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @seymabayram0.

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