Short Take: Gaming The Prison COVID Problem

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.

8 thoughts on “Short Take: Gaming The Prison COVID Problem

  1. B. McLeod

    There was a story online yesterday in which an epidemiologist was projecting that the pandemic will end at the point of ‘herd immunity,” and only after some 70% of the population are infected. In other words, similar to what I have been suggesting, the pandemic will end when it has run its natural course. A key element in this projection was the developing understanding that 20-25% of the population may be asymptomatic carriers. This casts serious doubt on the government’s real ability to “protect” anyone from exposure, whether they are in prison or out of prison.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or the “herd immunity” contention is complete malarkey and you’re wearing a tin foil hat. This is reddit level crap. Even worse, it’s got nothing to do with the post.

      1. B. McLeod

        What happens will happen, irrespective of what people choose to believe. Where you see a prison COVID-19 problem, I just see a COVID-19 problem. What these guys are doing is just the prison version of the COVID-19 parties in vogue with social lumpen around the country. This may be the best chance they ever have to hit back at the society in which they have little prospect of ever achieving status or success. This is one of their few remaining easy opportunities to cause some trouble, and it’s not surprising they jumped on it.

  2. Turnkey

    The public has no interest in the reality of prison, which is typically more tedious than titillating. Families and friends too soon forget that the behaviors that got their loved ones in prison (or poor character traits they exhibited prior to incarceration) didn’t disappear once the crash door locked. Likewise, staff easily become ambivalent about living conditions to which they wouldn’t want a loved one subjected.

    I don’t know what to say. For our part, prison staff generally are more caring and professional than you would think by watching reality TV or reading certain fabulists. Covid hasn’t changed any of it, other than shining a blinding light on a problem most people couldn’t care less about.

    1. Skink

      As always, TV gets it wrong. COs care; medical cares. Inmates game; COs and medical have to figure whether it’s real or “malingering.” After 1000 cases dealing with these issues, it still rankles me when a lawyer writes that a prisoner’s condition was ignored. That, contrary to popular myth, nearly never happens.

      COs and medical folks deal with inmates long-term. It’s like an office relationship because the same inmates are there every day. There’s no equality, but they ain’t exactly like strangers coming to the Quickie Mart. They’re known, and I have yet to see one that was intentionally mistreated. The people working in prisons and jails just don’t think that way.

      So what’s to be done when inmates decide it’s in their interest to intentionally infect themselves? Folks on the outside see this as a cry: they want out of the horrible place that gives them nothing and they’re willing to do anything, even getting infected with the virus, to get that. That’s not the reality. For sure, they want out. But the virus is just the flavor of the day to meet that end.

      They don’t think like you. They think about every scheme to get out. Society , and lawyers, think prisons and jails are so horrible that inmates will do anything to get out. They will, but it is nearly never about the horrors. It’s about getting out.

  3. KP

    “Or the “herd immunity” contention is complete malarkey”
    No Boss, herd immunity is not a theory, its how a species stay alive. You can argue over how many of the herd may die before only immune ones are left, and it was pretty horrific for the native populations around the world when Europeans started sailing, but the survivors go on reproducing.
    In a prison it will have the same effect. Maybe sharing a cup to catch it is a good idea as you will get treatment now, while catching it naturally in 6months leaves you facing an over-worked health system. Biology isn’t woke, and if you have ever caught a cold or flu, you can expect to catch Covid-19 sooner or later, its the way biology works. A lot of us will die, but nobody gets out of life alive.

    1. SHG Post author

      You can be so dense sometimes. You really need to get out more. It’s not that the concept of “herd immunity” doesn’t exist, but no one as yet knows whether and how it applies here, so there is no discussion of it at this point that isn’t nonsense.

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