There were 4623 incarcerated people
over 65 in federal prisons during the first week of May. Until May
12, Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump's one-time campaign manager, was one of
them. The 71-year-old petitioned the court for release to home
confinement because of his age, heart condition, and "fear of
coronavirus." Yet the federal correctional institution that
housed Manafort had no coronavirus cases, and Manafort had served
fewer than two years of his more than seven-year sentence. Recently
developed federal guidelines suggest at-home confinement for those at
risk who have served more than half of their sentence or have less
than eighteen months of jail time left to serve. Manafort meets none
of these criteria, but he apparently had enough high-priced lawyers
to push his case aggressively.
not as outraged at Manafort's early release as I am disturbed about
the other 4622 elderly inmates, most who lack the resources and
access that Manafort had. Nearly forty percent of those incarcerated
in federal prisons are African American, many serving very long
sentences for drug-related crimes. Many have some of the same
underlying medical conditions and "fear of coronavirus"
that Manafort had. How many of them will get an early release and
the relative luxury of home confinement? The treatment of a wealthy,
older white man and a poor, older Black man is vastly different.
are a breeding ground for the coronavirus. Prisons are overcrowded
with social distancing an impossibility since an average cell, about
five feet by five, does not allow six feet of distancing. Recent
studies show that the COVID19 germs from a loud conversation or a
cough linger for minutes, sufficient time to infect another person.
The notorious Riker's Island prison has eight times the COVID19
infection rate of the New York City rate. Infection is not a
possibility, but a near-certainty. Prison infections are so
widespread that some activists describe them as "death camps."
people don't commit violent crimes (although they commit financial
crimes and perjury). Releasing those over 65 who were convicted of
drug crimes and other nonviolent crimes saves money and has little
social cost. But incarceration is an economic driver for some
communities. Federal prisons employ tens of thousands of people. In
some isolated communities, these prisons are a significant source of
employment. Releasing prisoners early may cause layoffs. Is this
why we insist on keeping so many people locked up for such long
was eliminated in federal prison in the mid-1980s, allowing "good
behavior " only after 85 percent of a sentence has been served.
But Manafort, citing "fear of corona," ended up serving
less than a quarter of his sentence. Can an old Black man get the
Manafort treatment and serve the rest of his sentence in a cushy
condo in Northern Virginia? Manafort had a lot less to fear, at his
minimum security prison, than a Black inmate might.
countries have reacted to corona crowding by releasing inmates in the
tens of thousands. According to David Anderson of the International
Legal Foundation, Iran released more than half of its prisoners –
100,000 of 189,000. Palestine is holding emergency court sessions to
allow inmates to petition for release. Other countries seem to
understand that COVID and crowding don't work and are releasing
our country, in Anderson's words, is "addicted to punishment."
In keeping nonviolent inmates incarcerated, we are "prioritizing
punishment over public health." The inmates aren't the only
ones at risk. Correctional officers, lawyers, and visiting family
members are also vulnerable. We are so committed to getting a "pound
of flesh" from those incarcerated that we refuse to consider the
high costs of incarceration.
the case of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Convicted of
perjury, obstruction of justice, and other crimes, Kilpatrick was
sentenced to 28 years for his crimes. He is not scheduled to be
released until 2037! While Kilpatrick certainly deserved to be
convicted, a 28-year sentence is excessive. Recently an inmate at
his Oakdale, Louisiana prison died from the coronavirus. I'm sure
Kilpatrick is as frightened of the coronavirus as Manafort is. He is
not likely to be allowed home confinement.
there is intervention, Kilpatrick will be eligible for Social
Security before he is released! What is the purpose of such a long
sentence? How much does it cost to incarcerate someone for 28 years?
Is it worth it?
coronavirus magnified our nation's inequality. Manafort is out after
less than two years' incarceration. Thousands who are old and poor
remain incarcerated and vulnerable to coronavirus. Our criminal
injustice system is in dire need of reform.