When a tragic story comes up about a prisoner who dies after being denied medical care after complaining to a guard, the flip side of the story rarely gets told. Some guards don’t care and see prisoners are subhuman. But most guards see something different in the tragic story, a never-ending stream of complaining and lies by prisoners trying to get something over on the system. When that one in a hundred complaints is real, the failure to address it has terrible consequences.
But the impact of the 99 other complaints on the legit one muddies the waters about how the story reflects how bad guards are to prisoners. They may well be, but you can’t pretend the lies and scams never happen.
Over the past two months, activists have made a compelling case for the release of prisoners who are detained pre-trial, within a year of release or otherwise vulnerable to death from coronavirus. The post-conviction inmates weren’t sentenced to death by COVID-19, and the pre-trial detainees are presumed innocent, and there is no justification for putting them at risk of harm from disease. While there have been some wins at releasing prisoners, it hasn’t been widespread.
But word in a prison isn’t always accurate or rational, and at Los Angeles County correctional facility, prisoners got the idea that being infected was their ticket out.
Inmates at a Los Angeles County correctional facility drank from the same cup with the purpose of infecting one another, resulting in 21 cases of coronavirus, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
The inmates at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic are seen on surveillance video crowding the hot water dispenser, sipping the water, and also “sniffing” out of a common mask, according to Villanueva.
This is how the complaints about jails being petri dishes for disease, and calls for the release of prisoners, is turned into another get-out-of-jail scam.
The inmates were drinking hot water to try to raise their oral temperatures before a temperature check, he added.
Prisoners can be very imaginative in finding ways to work, and beat, the system.
One of the problems with trying to address, and argue, the causes of harm and neglect in jails and prisons is that while there are legitimate cases, and significant failures and acts of cruelty, they happen amidst a countervailing force of prisoners engaging in behaviors that undermine the arguments. Granted, they aren’t necessarily the brightest people, and given their circumstances have good reason to try to do whatever they can to survive, but a story like this, conduct like this, makes it far harder to contend that prisons need to either free or protect their prisoners from harm. How can prisons be blamed when the inmates are doing it to themselves?
“Every inmate has access to their own cup of water which they jealously guard,” the sheriff said. They use it to cook ramen noodles or make instant coffee, for example.
“It’s not something they share person-to-person, and anyone who practices basic hygiene doesn’t do that anyway,” Villanueva said. “So, in this environment, and then considering the fact that the 21 tested positive out of that module, shows what their intention was.”
The fact remains that the risk of infection, and of harm or death, is very real for a great many prisoners. But like the inmates who want to get drugs, break the monotony, and complain about pains so that they will be taken to the infirmary, their scams make guards, also not the brightest bulbs, assume that every complaint is a lie and consequently fail to take seriously the inmates whose conditions are dire.
After they die, often in horrifying conditions, everyone wonders how cruel prisons must be to allow it to happen. The reality of other prisoners trying to find ways to beat the system, to get one over on the guards, contributes to the problem. It’s not an excuse for the failings, but it surely doesn’t help either.