On today's BradCast: Sanders is out, and a former federal prisoner tries to sound the alarm about deplorable and deadly conditions in our nation's prison system as coronavirus turns jail sentences, even for non-violent offenders, into death sentences --- not to mention the dangers posed to prison workers and their families in the bargain. [Audio link to show is posted below.]
First up: And then there was one. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced the suspension of his Presidential campaign on Wednesday, leaving Joe Biden the last man standing from about 25 or so Democratic men and women vying for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination. In a live-streamed announcement, Sanders said he was leaving the race, though staying on the ballot in the remaining primary states (if they are ever able to vote amid the coronavirus pandemic) in hopes of leveraging as many delegates as possible at the Democratic National Convention (if it is ever able to happen) to continuing moving his progressive agenda forward. We share an extended portion of Sanders statement today, in which he announces his support for Biden, if not yet an explicit endorsement.
Next: While most Americans continue to hunker down in their homes and maintain physical distancing while outside of the home as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise, there are millions held in state and federal prisons (as well as immigration detention centers) who are unable to physically distance themselves from others. The result, not unexpectedly, is an explosion of infections and deaths for both prisoners and prison staff around the country, even as some states have released thousands of non-violent offenders to try and ease over-crowding that is exacerbating the problem and turning incarceration into a potential death sentence for many.
Former Alabama Governor DON SIEGELMAN contacted us last week in hopes of trying to get the word out about the problem, including at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana, where the former Democratic Governor (and "political prisoner") served five years of time before his long-overdue release in 2017.
The minimum security facility at Oakdale has seen an explosion of COVID-19 cases and, according to suspiciously low numbers being reported by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), currently has more reported cases (35) and deaths (5) than any other federal facility. (Curiously, on its website, the BOP is reporting just 253 federal inmates and 85 BOP staffers infected as of today at more than 40 federal facilities across the country. At the same time, as the NYTimes reported this afternoon, the Cook County jail in Chicago alone has at least 387 cases linked to that one county facility.)
Siegelman, who has been in touch with some of his former cellmates who are now pleading for help, details the conditions that prisoners at the Oakdale facility are forced to live under. "The conditions at Oakdale were bad before the virus started," he tells me. "If people can imagine living stacked, one on top of the other, basically a warehouse."
He details one of the areas he was housed in that inmates call "the submarine room" because bunks are stacked three high and it is like living in a submarine. The bunks, he says, are "so close together you can actually reach out and touch the other inmates if you wanted to. It was so crowded. There's no ventilation. The doors are shut, the windows are locked. There's nothing to protect an inmate from breathing what other inmates exhale." With inmates "in such close proximity, there is no way to protect themselves from someone who has the virus, who is a carrier. For the virus, it's going to be like shooting fish in a barrel."
Siegelman explains that he has been told the facility has not made adequate changes to deal with the outbreak, which is why the ACLU has filed a lawsuit in hopes of allowing many of the non-violent offenders to be released from the facility. While that has happened in a number of state prisons, the federal system is moving intolerably slowly in taking any action at all. In many cases, Siegelman says, prisoners are locked up during pre-trial, before they've been found guilty of anything. In others, they are forced to stay in these dangerous conditions longer than they might otherwise, since many probation and parole boards have been unable to meet due to the pandemic.
He is calling for non-violent offenders, particularly those late in their sentences, to be released immediately. "My question is, why are they there in the first place? If they pose no threat to public safety, if they're non-violent offenders, if they have only a few months remaining on their sentence, if they are at risk because of health reasons, why not let them out? They should have been out already."
The once very popular southern state Governor served from 1999 to 2003, after serving as Alabama's Sec. of State, Attorney General and Lt. Governor. He was charged with bribery-related offenses in which he never received a dime on charges that more than 100 former Democratic and Republican state Attorneys General described as something that was never considered to be a crime until Siegelman was charged with it. He was sentenced by a federal judge who was later arrested and removed from the bench after being found to have beaten his wife.
The evidence suggests, as we've covered his story over the years on air at The BRAD BLOG, that it was a political prosecution which included major prosecutorial misconduct during the George W. Bush era, when Siegelman's Republican rival, Gov. Bob Riley, worked closely with longtime Alabama GOP operative Karl Rove to take him down by any means necessary. That included an almost-certainly stolen election on a Diebold optical-scan tabulator on which results were flipped against him in the middle of the night. All of which Siegelman details in his upcoming book, Stealing Our Democracy: How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens Our Nation.
For now, however, Siegelman is fighting for criminal justice reform and imploring listeners to "call your mayors, your governor, and Members of Congress to keep the pressure on to get these people out of jail and out of prisons that pose no public safety risk. They need to say that inmates that are non-violent, that pose no public safety risk, need to be released --- or at least placed in another facility where they are separate from other inmates. .... We would hope that the President of the United States would get on board and take this a little more seriously. But don't hold your breath."
(Snail mail support to "Brad Friedman, 7095 Hollywood Blvd., #594 Los Angeles, CA 90028" always welcome too!)