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Harnessing Federal Power for Police Reform in America

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 9:00pm in

Police kneel alongside a protest in Coral Gables, Florida, on May 30, 2020. Photo credit: That One Photography / Shutterstock.com....

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The Census Is Reopening Too: Workers Fear Being Sacrificed to Coronavirus for the Sake of a Speedy Tally

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 10:00pm in



As the coronavirus was spreading wildly through New York City at the beginning of March, the U.S. government was reaching a critical moment in its hiring process for the 2020 decennial census. Clerks offered temporary jobs to thousands of people, who were to be tasked with going door to door and collecting data from households later in the spring.

At one census office, dozens of job applicants arrived daily to stand in a line that at times snaked outside the front door, as people waited for background checks, according to a manager who worked at the office. The manager looked on with anxiety as applicants took turns entering a small, poorly ventilated room, where a worker pressed their finger onto a scanner or piece of paper. Though coronavirus was beginning to be known as a widespread public health risk, it would be weeks before wearing a mask became routine.

The manager, who declined to be named out of fear that speaking to the press could complicate their employment prospects, said they and others raised alarms in early March with regional census staff that the fingerprinting operation should be shuttered and additional health protections were needed. Yet the project ran until March 18, five days after President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency.

“We were in the epicenter of the entire world. My sense was Washington, D.C., really wanted to make sure that we got as much done as possible before we had to close our office.”

“We were in the epicenter of the entire world,” the manager said. But the Census Bureau, which falls under the Department of Commerce, seemed uninterested in taking swift action to protect health: “My sense was Washington, D.C., really wanted to make sure that we got as much done as possible before we had to close our office.”

Census worker concerns regarding Covid-19 didn’t stop there. The manager said that in the weeks that followed, they fielded complaints from at least 15 temporary census employees regarding coronavirus protections, which the manager felt were not taken seriously by the bureau. As the office reopened in May, after two months, staff raised concerns that workers were not required to wear masks at all times, that the density of people in the office was unsafe, that the commute was risky, and telework options were lacking. The Census Bureau fired the manager in mid-June, leaving them with the suspicion that continuing to raise worker safety issues was the motivation.

“The Census Bureau places the highest priority on the health and safety of our field employees,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau in an emailed statement responding to questions from the Intercept. “As such, we consult and cooperate with local public health officials and governments to ensure we are meeting guidelines in communities throughout the United States.”

“We will continue to address our employees’ concerns regarding these matters as they arise,” the spokesperson said.

Reopening the Census

With New York, along with the rest of the U.S., reopening after months of pandemic shutdowns, most census offices have restarted the sprawling operations that were put on pause in March and April. But observers are raising questions about whether the census will be safely carried out, with infection rates rising again in cities like Houston and regions like the Southeast and door-knockers now scheduled to carry out their work at the peak of hurricane season.

“It is incumbent on the Census Bureau to go above and beyond, to not only protect the health and well-being of its employees, but to ensure that its employees have confidence in the measures that are being taken,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant for various organizations, who has worked more than three decades on census-related issues.

Time is of the essence. The census is meant to provide a snapshot of the U.S. on April 1 of the year of the count. Delays erode the quality of the data, and the census is already far behind schedule.

The U.S. Constitution indicates that the census should be completed by December 31. That deadline has now been extended to April 30, 2021. And the collection phase, which culminates with door-knockers visiting homes that have not responded, will conclude at the end of October, rather than the end of July. That last phase is critical to reaching historically undercounted demographics, such as immigrants and American Indians.

Bad data can have significant impacts when it comes to how communities are represented in Congress, as well as what kind of federal funds they can access. The data will be used for a process known as apportionment, which determines the number of U.S. representatives each state sends to Capitol Hill. An example of the type of federal funding doled out based on census numbers is the CARES Act, passed to provide coronavirus relief. If a community is miscounted, the distribution of money is skewed.

Completing the Census is considered an essential activity, according to the Census Bureau spokesperson. To protect against the spread of Covid-19, the Bureau provides personal protective equipment to all employees, limits the number of staff that work in an office at one time, and allows telework when possible. A press release on the Census web site indicates that the Bureau follows local guidelines where it comes to requiring use of masks.

If the Census Bureau fails to take adequate health protection measures for its workers, it risks the health of the public as well as the staff, which includes a large number of retirees with Covid-19 health vulnerabilities. It also sets the stage for a high worker turnover, more delays, and further degraded data.

Little Guidance at the Pandemic Epicenter

The New York census manager said their office received no direction from regional or national officials when they and a colleague began to discuss Covid-19 with staff in late February or early March. In the second week in March, offices were offered $100 to buy cleaning supplies, a tepid first step at protecting workers. After March 18, the office was shut down. Most of the workers, whose job was to interview and hire census-takers, were given no option to work from home. They were paid for four weeks and then furloughed. Despite objections, managers continued to face pressure to come into the office.

The decennial census is a massive operation. Over the course of more than two years, a temporary workforce of hundreds of thousands must be hired and deployed to tally every household in the U.S. Given the size of the project, small disruptions or changes in plans can turn into huge problems. Lowenthal, the census consultant, said that’s one reason that the bureau might be hesitant to develop new processes to allow telework. She also noted that the bureau goes to great lengths to protect personal information.

Indeed, the justification offered to New York City employees for requiring they work in-office was the possibility that workers could retain potential employees’ information if they worked from home, according to the manager as well as an office worker.

New York City hiring staff was asked to return to offices at the end of May. A code of conduct distributed to employees noted that workers would be provided with two masks and would be required to wear one unless seated at a desk 6 feet from colleagues. The office worker, who declined to be named because they need to keep their job, said workers were also provided with hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes, and were told to clean their phones and keyboards periodically.

However, the worker said, they feel uncomfortable in an enclosed setting where a number of employees work with no mask or their mask under their nose. Not all workstations are positioned 6 feet apart, the worker said, and, since everyone — including management — is a temporary worker, people frequently get up to ask questions, at times without masks.

“This is not a patio in a restaurant that has no roof,” the office worker said. “Imagine being on an airplane and half the people aren’t wearing masks.” The worker has never seen managers enforce mask guidelines.

“This is not a patio in a restaurant that has no roof. Imagine being on an airplane and half the people aren’t wearing masks.”

The manager continued to push for a deep clean, an inspection of the site where fingerprinting would resume, and guidance on how to encourage mask-wearing — before they were let go.

The office manager is not alone in raising these issues on workers’ behalf. In a survey administered by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which provides research to Congress, less than half of Area Census Office managers said they were satisfied with the regional and national census offices’ communications about the pandemic. And only about half of the managers surveyed in New York were confident in their ability to safely manage census employees and operations.

In comments submitted through the survey, managers raised concerns about whether public health guidelines were being effectively followed. Fifteen managers registered concerns about telework, including that workers were still being required to go to the office throughout April and that there weren’t enough laptops in some areas to make working from home possible for all managers.

“A lot of people are scared,” the office worker said. However, with the economy in a recession, the Census Bureau is one of few employment options in many areas. The office worker has family to support, and calms their anxieties through faith in a higher power. “Maybe if there’s a God, he wants me to keep working,” the worker said. Although the worker sees the risk of coronavirus everywhere, they need the money: “In a way, I go to work very happily.”

After the Intercept sent an inquiry to the Bureau, the office where the clerk works implemented a new, staggered schedule of work shifts. The move was framed as a protective measure against the spread of Covid-19.

Risks to the Public Ahead

For now, most of the census-related health concerns center around the office environment, but door-knockers are beginning to fan out in isolated areas, where a single worker will make contact with numerous homes. Given the size of the workforce nationally, it’s inevitable that some employees and some of the residents interacting with them will have Covid-19. A measure like testing such workers for Covid-19 before they begin the work, which the Census Bureau has not so far committed to do, would only have limited impact, since the job entails continuing to interact with new strangers.

In the end, the number of people who are sickened during the census process will largely rely on the bureau’s ability to communicate safety protocol, provide equipment, and set up appropriate gathering spaces. “The Census Bureau has enough funding to go overboard in terms of spending on PPE” — personal protective equipment — “perhaps even funding and paying for more space to train and fingerprint and carry out other duties in order for employees to feel safe,” said Lowenthal.

Do you have a coronavirus story you want to share? Email us at coronavirus@intercept.com or use one of these secure methods to contact a reporter.

To scrap the census and do it over would require a new yearlong planning process, Lowenthal said, and a new round of hiring. Delaying the constitutionally mandated appropriations process would cause significant complications.

However, along with the new outbreaks, many experts are warning of a potential second wave of infections in September. “If the Bureau faces any future disruptions such as natural disasters, like hurricanes — wildfires are also a concern in some parts of the country — or a renewed widespread lockdown of communities because of coronavirus, its ability to produce a census that meets its own quality standards as well as public expectations could be compromised,” said Lowenthal. “It would give the Bureau pause.”

The post The Census Is Reopening Too: Workers Fear Being Sacrificed to Coronavirus for the Sake of a Speedy Tally appeared first on The Intercept.

‘I’ Newspaper: Universal Credit Appeals Almost Double

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 8:08pm in

Here’s another story from yesterday’s I for Monday, 6th June 2020. Written by Richard Vaughan, it reports that the number of appeals against Universal Credit increased by 96 per cent in the first three months of this year. The article runs

The number of universal credit appeals almost doubled in the first three months of this year, official figures reveal.

Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice show that in the period between January and March, the number of appeals to tribunals in relation to universal credit soared by 96 per cent to more than 7,300.

It highlights the issue with the benefits system, which critics warn can lead to sanctions against the most vulnerable, leaving them with their payments being cut or stopped.

The Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said: “Time and time again we are told by ministers that universal credit is working but these figures would suggest otherwise.”

The increase in appeals comes as Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey announced the Government would not be extending the three months suspension of sanctions introduced for benefit claimants at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms Coffey told MPs last week that Jobcentres would fully reopen in July. The DWP was approached for comment.

Universal Credit has been a malignant shambles causing nothing but misery and poverty ever since it was introduced by Iain Duncan Smith. I think the sanctions regime was introduced by the grinning Blair and New Labour, but it’s been very strongly supported by IDS and his vile successors. Only a few days ago Mike put up an official report that stated that benefit sanctions are really only good for increasing misery and anxiety. Jeremy Corbyn included in Labour’s manifesto the commitment to ending and properly reforming the benefits system. But this was scrapped and replaced with something much more anodyne by Keir Starmer.

This is no doubt one of the very many reasons people have for leaving the Labour Party. It is disgraceful that the quote criticizing Universal Credit came from a Lib Dem MP. I am fully aware that the I is very much biased against Labour, as is shown by its pushing of the anti-Semitism smears. It’s possible that there are also Labour critics of Universal Credit – indeed, I am absolutely sure there  are – but the I ignored them to promote the Lib Dems.

One the other hand, it may also be that they were silenced by Starmer, keen to continue Tory policies in the New Labour strategy of winning over Conservative voters at the expense of working people.

Amid Coronavirus, a Flawed Guardianship System Can Make It Impossible to Care for Relatives in Assisted Living Facilities

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 12:30am in



In the summer of 2018, then-84-year-old Genyte Dirse was removed from her home — a motel she had owned and lived in for decades — and placed in an assisted living facility in St. Petersburg, Florida. This followed a relatively fast and bewildering legal fight between Dirse and a local real estate agent who argued that she wasn’t in her right mind to live independently. Ever since then, her closest living relative in the U.S., her great-nephew Gedi Pakalnis, had fought a losing legal battle to bring her back home.

Pakalnis’s fight to bring Dirse home ramped up this spring, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the globe. In the United States, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been particularly vulnerable, with more than 51,000 deaths reported nationally from those institutions so far. In Florida, like elsewhere in the country, the number of Covid-19 deaths at senior living facilities has grown at a much faster rate than the broader population and, by early May, accounted for more than a third of the state’s pandemic fatalities.

Advocates acknowledge the pandemic “will make it more difficult” for seniors to exercise the remaining rights they do have.

In late April, the virus struck Patrick Manor, where Dirse lived. For weeks prior, Pakalnis had been trying to reach his great-aunt’s legal guardian to get information about her health, raising concerns about the fast-spreading disease. After weeks of no news, Pakalnis finally learned that Dirse had been hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms. Dirse’s guardian told Pakalnis that he could potentially visit her once the pandemic calmed down.

He never got the opportunity. On May 5, Dirse died of Covid-19, alone at St. Anthony’s Hospital. She was not the first Patrick Manor resident to be hospitalized with the coronavirus, and by mid-May, 11 Patrick Manor residents and two staff had tested positive with the disease.

The frequent deaths of elderly people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities has become a horrifying reality throughout the pandemic. But something was also different about Dirse’s death; according to her great-nephew and others who were involved in the guardianship process, she was confined against her will to Patrick Manor, where she faced a greater likelihood of getting sick — despite having family willing and able to take care of her.

For decades, adult guardianship has been a legally thorny issue, with independent watchdogs and journalists repeatedly finding that senior citizens are stripped of their rights and often financially exploited — with little government oversight. The cases often involve complex family drama and disagreements among siblings, but sometimes, as in Dirse’s case, it’s an outsider who gets involved, over the objections of the elderly person’s relatives. A court’s decision to appoint a guardian is usually final, as appeals are costly and complex, and appellate courts are highly deferential to the lower court’s initial findings.

The issue has taken on new relevance amid the pandemic. In a Covid-19 resource compiled by the National Guardianship Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Center for State Courts, advocates acknowledge the pandemic “will make it more difficult” for seniors to exercise the remaining rights they do have.

“In this pandemic we’re going to see abusive guardianships started over Zoom, with the virus facilitating the racket that’s already in place,” warned Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, a national advocacy group. “The difference with Covid-19 is we’re going to see wards dying in nursing homes faster, in weeks, rather than months, and a further decrease of any monitoring.”

Like many legal guardianship cases, the story of how Dirse ended up at Patrick Manor is fraught with allegations of ulterior motives and complex family dynamics. It all started after a local real estate agent accused Pakalnis of exploiting his great-aunt.

Pakalnis, who is 37, is the great-great grandson of Dirse’s maternal grandmother. In the early 1990s, Dirse visited her relatives in Lithuania, where Pakalnis was being raised by his dad. Dirse invited him to come live with her in the U.S. He took her up on the offer in 2003, living with Dirse throughout high school, college, and graduate school. “My aunt has always been like my mother,” he said. “We were a happy family for 15 years, lived together, and loved each other.”

For several decades, Dirse managed her small motel business, Dirse Apartments and Motel. In 2017, in front of witnesses and a notary, she sold one of her three properties to Pakalnis for $50,000. Diana Sames, a local real estate agent who visited Dirse annually to pass out calendars and broach selling her property, was aghast at the transaction, which was for well below market-value.

Sames petitioned a court to appoint a guardian for Dirse, citing the property sale as evidence that she was not in her right mind. Though Sames denied doing so out of self-interest, she did tell local reporters that she “would have no problem” taking a commission from the sale of Dirse’s property if it were listed on the market. As the guardianship case proceeded, tenants said in sworn affidavits they repeatedly heard Dirse tell Sames that she had no intention of listing and had long planned to sell one building to her family. One recalled Dirse mentioning that she was “well prepared for retirement” and would “have more than enough for herself,” even with one less property. Pakalnis meanwhile scrambled to hire attorneys to provide evidence to the court and file complaints with local institutions.

But a few months later, a judge and a panel of professionals declared Dirse “incapacitated” and appointed an adult legal guardian to take over her affairs. The guardian, Traci Samuel, had no prior relationship with Dirse and was proposed to the court by Sames, the petitioner.

Samuel quickly filed a lawsuit to reverse the sale of Dirse’s property and moved Dirse against her will to an assisted living facility, Inspired Living in St. Petersburg. At first, Pakalnis was able to visit her there. After a visit on November 10, 2018, he filed an affidavit with the court saying that his great-aunt looked weaker, less healthy, had complained of untreated leg pain, and told him she wanted to go home. The guardian then barred Pakalnis from seeing Dirse again, claiming that Dirse didn’t want to hear from her great-nephew anymore.


Romualdas Pakalnis, Genyte Dirse, Gedi, and Gedi’s brother Tom Pakalanis in December 2016. Romualdas and Tom were visiting Florida from Lithuania for Christmas.

Photo: Courtesy of Gediminas Pakalnis

Samuel, who later changed her name to Traci Hudson, was soon engulfed in scandal. In November 2019, she was charged with felony exploitation by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and accused of stealing more than $500,000 from a 92-year-old man who she was also caring for. Investigators found that she had transferred nearly all his money to her bank accounts and used the funds to buy NFL tickets, new clothes and jewelry, and even a new house. She did not return requests for comment.

The court appointed a new legal guardian for Dirse in late November: Jean Farnan. In March, at the outset of the pandemic, Pakalnis contacted Farnan through a court filing, requesting information about his aunt’s well-being and said he was concerned “since nursing homes and assisted living facilities are vulnerable to fast-spreading Coronavirus.”

But he got no response. A month later, he learned via Farnan’s attorney, Hamden Baskin, that Dirse had been taken to the hospital. Farnan and Baskin declined to comment for this article.

“My aunt has educated family who never committed any crime and we have healthy environment and people who love her and can take care of her at any time at no cost.”

Pakalnis filed another court petition on April 29 asking for more information about Dirse’s whereabouts and lamented to Farnan that he could have been caring for his great-aunt at home. “My aunt has educated family who never committed any crime and we have healthy environment and people who love her and can take care of her at any time at no cost,” he wrote in a court filing. He begged for his great-aunt to at least receive video and phone calls, stressing that she needed the emotional support.

The next day, Farnan wrote back claiming that she hadn’t received his earlier court correspondence. Attaching a photo of Dirse from January, Farnan wrote that Dirse is a “very pleasant lady” and said, “I am sure she is not feeling that well, and being in the hospital is always stressful.” Farnan ended her email by saying when the Covid-19 situation is under control, she’d like to allow Dirse to see whoever she wants.

Pakalnis wrote back on May 1, urging again for the opportunity to talk with his great-aunt on the phone and reiterating that Dirse could stay with him. “[P]lease remember that she has her home near the beach in ecological environment with her family that misses her,” he wrote. “[Not] being able to hear and see her for many months is unhealthy for both of us.”

Four days later, Baskin filed a brief asking the court to deny Pakalnis’s emergency petitions and prohibit any further communication from him. Dirse died later that day. Diana Sames, the realtor who started this whole process, defended her decision to petition for guardianship for Dirse. “She’s in heaven now. Why is there so much drama around this poor lady?” she asked The Intercept. “I don’t need to make money; I own my car, own my home, I have my own conscience.”

Adult legal guardianship is a process that has existed in the United States since colonial times, imported from a 14th century English legal principle known as parens patriae. The idea entails giving full rights and obligations to the state if an adult is deemed too vulnerable or “incapacitated” to care for themselves. A judge can appoint a guardian — often it’s a family member, sometimes it’s a third-party professional like Traci Hudson or Jean Farnan — and they have full legal authority to manage the individual’s health care decisions, their financial assets, or both. Many people can petition a court for guardianship if they believe an elderly person needs it: relatives, hospitals, government agencies, and even acquaintances like the realtor Diana Sames.

Adult legal guardianship varies by state, even sometimes county by county. However, in most places anyone 18 or older can nominate themselves to be a guardian, and few states require any sort of registration or licensing for the role. No good data even exists on how many seniors are currently living under guardianship. The National Center for State Courts estimated that based on the average of active pending cases in four states in 2008, there were 1.3 million cases nationwide, in control of roughly $50 billion in assets. This could be a low estimate, and as baby boomers get older, experts anticipate the numbers to rise considerably.

Though guardianship can at times be beneficial for the elderly, particularly if they really are at risk of being swindled or do need assistance, a growing movement over the last few decades has raised staggering examples of how mentally sound seniors lose their rights through this process, becoming totally isolated and forced to live in ways wholly contrary to how they want. In the worst cases, it’s the guardians themselves who exploit the senior, draining their assets, cutting off contact with friends and family, and confining them to expensive facilities when they just want to remain in their homes. Seniors have described the experience as living a “civil death” or being a “legal ghost.”

Patrick Manor, the assisted living facility where Genyte Dirse resided, sits in St. Petersburg, Florida on June 6, 2020.

Patrick Manor, the assisted living facility where Genyte Dirse resided, sits in St. Petersburg, Fla., on June 6, 2020.

Photo: Tailyr Irvine for The Intercept

How widespread guardian abuse is remains unclear, but following a yearlong investigation, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging said in a 2018 report that they “identified persistent and widespread challenges that require a nationwide focus” to ensure  that guardianship “works on behalf of the individuals it is intended to protect.” The committee acknowledged that in some cases, “more rights than necessary” may be taken from an individual and that with such minimal oversight “once a guardianship is imposed, there are few safeguards in place to protect against individuals who choose to abuse the system.”

Seniors have described the experience as living a “civil death” or being a “legal ghost.”

Issues around guardianship have existed for decades, and efforts at reform really took off in 1987, following a six-part Associated Press exposé. The investigative series prompted a flurry of new state legislation and the formation of the National Guardianship Association to establish new standards.

Yet despite modest improvements, lasting and widespread change remains elusive, and media reports detailing guardian abuse have continued to emerge. The U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at guardianship in 2004, 2010, 2011, and 2016, each time identifying major issues and a lack of clear information to guide policy. In its 2010 report, the GAO “identified hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia” since 1990.

Rick Black — who co-founded the Center for Estate Administration Reform with his wife in 2018 after dealing with a guardian who stole $200,000 from his father-in-law — blames “predatory attorneys” and a startlingly low burden of proof required to strip seniors of their rights.

Pakalnis described his experience dealing with the legal system as massively stressful and time consuming. When it first began, he thought that once he provided the court his great-aunt’s medical records, the matter would quickly resolve. He said he wishes people understood how difficult it is “when a strange person is in charge of your loved one and is ignorant to the family.” He thinks the pandemic has “opened up the sores” of guardianship and revealed that some assisted living facilities just can’t guarantee safe environments for people living there.

Tim Reid and his sister Donna O’Neil have also been grappling with the guardianship system amid Covid-19. On March 18, after years of unsuccessful attempts to bring her home from an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, their mom, Margaret Estelle Reid, died.

“My attorneys and I tried everything legally and medically possible to show the court why my mother should have been allowed to live in her home,” O’Neil told The Intercept. “I presented the guardianship and court multiple plans to prove Mom would be better cared for at home, but no matter what we presented, it was always disregarded. She was moved almost an hour away into a lockdown facility with the very predictable result of her receiving much less visitation. She never again saw her neighbors or old friends, and visitation with family was destroyed.”

Margaret Reid ended up in guardianship after a 2014 dispute among Reid’s children about their mother’s future and estate plan.

Dr. Gregory Marsella, a psychiatrist in Boca Raton in South Florida, recalled speaking with Reid about the dispute shortly after it happened. (He had seen Reid several times between 2009 and 2014. He has also treated Tim Reid, the son, for years.)

“She raised concern in our last meeting about how the siblings would work together in the event that she was incapacitated, and she talked about how she planned to make edits to her advance health directives,” Marsella said in an interview. “She told me she wanted to stay in her home no matter what, that she wanted to die in her home. She gave me a handwritten note saying this for my records, which I still have, and she said she was going to review her advance health directives with her attorney too to make sure they underscored this.”

But shortly thereafter, her other daughter, Margaret Fallon, successfully petitioned a court for legal guardianship. The idea that Margaret Reid was incapacitated was “risible, ludicrous, absurd,” said Marsella, who had seen her earlier that month. He described the whole experience as “eye-opening” in seeing the way that “hired gun” doctors work with courts and attorneys to strip the elderly of their rights.

“She told me she wanted to stay in her home no matter what, that she wanted to die in her home.”

As an expert witness in Reid’s guardianship hearing in a Florida state court, Marsella testified about the risks of moving her to an assisted living facility or nursing home. Among other things, he testified that mortality rates go up 200 to 300 percent for patients in such institutions, compared to those kept and cared for in their homes. Ten to 15 percent of patients with dementia die within six months of their placement into assisted living facilities, he also told the court.

The court was not convinced. Margaret Reid was taken from her home in 2017 and moved to the Meridian at Waterways.


Margaret Reid with daughter Donna and her son Lawrence on her birthday in February 2018.

Photo: Courtesy of Lawrence T. Reid Jr.

Reid’s guardianship process quickly ate up her assets. After an internal audit raised red flags, a Palm Beach County Inspector General investigation found that in just one year, guardianship costs amounted to nearly 22 percent of Reid’s net worth, with legal fees averaging $539 per day. The report also found “billing practices, invoices, and time entries for numerous of the attorney fee petitions were unconventional, unreasonable or unsubstantiated.”

In part distressed about visitation restrictions, when Covid-19 began to spread, O’Neil filed an emergency court petition about the risk her mom faced amid the pandemic. “I saw her alive the day before she died; she didn’t look good at all, she seemed to exhibit a lot of the symptoms of coronavirus and was fading so fast from when I had seen her a week earlier,” recalled Tim Reid.

Tim said he asked both a Meridian medical attendant and Fallon, his sister, to get Margaret Reid tested for Covid-19, which never happened. (Fallon denies ever hearing about a request for a Covid-19 test.) “It’s not uncommon for these institutions to avoid documenting things that could lead to charges of malpractice or negligence,” said Tim.

Do you have a coronavirus story you want to share? Email us at coronavirus@intercept.com or use one of these secure methods to contact a reporter.

Randy Ramroth, executive director of the Meridian at Waterways, declined to comment on why Margaret Reid was not tested, to share how many positive coronavirus cases among residents there have been, and how, if at all, testing is handled. In an email, Ramroth cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as to why he could not answer. Instead, he asked for some positive press for his facility. “I realize you are reporting a news story but if possible, please share some encouraging words regarding our staff members for their dedication and tireless work in keeping their residents and families safe,” he said.

“The tragedies of assisted living and nursing homes are not new at all. Well before Covid-19, you could talk to 80 percent of doctors in any specialty, and they would tell you these places are death sentences for Mom or Dad,” said Marsella. “They absolutely accelerate your demise.”

Fallon declined a phone interview but in an email told The Intercept that it had been “deemed medically necessary” to move her mother to an assisted living facility. She said all of her siblings’ legal claims related to her guardianship were “fully litigated” and that her siblings had “full opportunity” to call witnesses and present evidence to the court. (Tim Reid denies all of this.) Fallon’s attorney, Laura Burkhalter, told that The Intercept she believes Tim and Donna’s attempts to bring their mother home were rejected because they couldn’t show it was in their mom’s best interest. “I think she got high-quality care” where she was, said Burkhalter.

Black, the advocate and founder of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, said he hopes that Covid-19 will help shine a light on the abuses of adult legal guardianship. “The pandemic has illuminated our long-term care crisis in general,” he said. “Many of these facilities do not have adequate staffing, and they don’t want the public to realize how so many of them are just built around making money.” A recent New York Times investigation revealed that some nursing homes have been evicting Medicaid-funded residents in favor of Covid-19 patients who can bring in more funds.

“Many of these facilities do not have adequate staffing, and they don’t want the public to realize how so many of them are just built around making money.”

Marsella said he can’t imagine there won’t be some kind of public reckoning, given all the coronavirus-related deaths that have been reported recently in nursing homes. “We’re not so blind yet as a culture that something of this magnitude will be swept under the rug,” he said. “The first and best change to happen would be to sweep away this aspect of guardianship as it exists and is promulgated by attorneys and judges.”

Genyte Dirse’s and her late husband Antanas’s plaque memorial displays in an outdoor mausoleum at the Memorial Park Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Florida. Dirse loved her church and was a devote Catholic, her great-nephew Gedi Pakalnis said. “We had no control over her funeral. She loved being in church but we weren’t allowed to have a priest at her funeral,” said Pakalnis.

The plaque memorial displays for Genyte Dirse and her late husband Antanas in an outdoor mausoleum at the Memorial Park Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla. Dirse loved her church and was a devote Catholic, her great-nephew Gedi Pakalnis said. “We had no control over her funeral. She loved being in church, but we weren’t allowed to have a priest at her funeral,” he said.

Photo: Tailyr Irvine for The Interept

Some advocates say the answer lies in less restrictive options. One such alternative, which grew out of the disability rights movement, is known as supported decision-making. Under this framework, an elderly person would keep their rights and work with trusted advisers to help them make decisions. Texas passed the country’s first law recognizing supported decision-making agreements in 2015, and since then eight more states have followed suit. Experts say it’s too early to know if this model is less prone to exploitation.

Nevada has also been leading the way on guardianship reform, following exposés that revealed massive guardianship corruption. (One notorious Nevada guardian, April Parks, was recently sentenced with up to 40 years for senior exploitation.) In 2017, following recommendations issued by a state commission, Nevada’s legislature passed a series of reforms, including granting all seniors facing guardianship the right to counsel, the creation of a new bill of rights, and the establishment of a State Guardianship Compliance Office that investigates fraud and abuse. Iowa also responded to a spate of guardianship scandals by passing new legislation in 2019 aimed at reducing elder abuse.

Not all recent reforms have led to real improvement, though. In 2016, after local media exposed widespread guardianship problems in Florida, lawmakers established a new Office of Public and Professional Guardians in the state’s Department of Elder Affairs. Black described this as “a strategic paper tiger by state leadership,” noting that the division lacks jurisdiction over local courts and has yet to involuntarily remove or successfully prosecute a single guardian. When the office’s top executive abruptly resigned last summer, the Orlando Sentinel reported that she had grown frustrated by her agency’s limited power to execute its mission.

Advocates say one reason that meaningful reform has inched along so slowly is because the federal government provides no real money or guidance to states that might otherwise improve their practices. In 2019 U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bob Casey, D-Penn., introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act, which would expand federal demonstration grants to help states collect better data and improve their practices, yet its only other co-sponsor is Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.

“I hope we can learn from this pandemic that we need to prioritize support and services for the elderly and people with disabilities,” said Dari Pogach, a senior staff attorney at American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging. “And that must include funding for state adult guardianship reform.”

The post Amid Coronavirus, a Flawed Guardianship System Can Make It Impossible to Care for Relatives in Assisted Living Facilities appeared first on The Intercept.

NYPD’s Culture of Impunity Sees an Officer Repeatedly Accused of Physical and Sexual Abuse Rising Through the Ranks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/07/2020 - 9:00pm in



On a late January morning in 2015, Carletto Allen was sitting in a car parked in front of his house in the Bronx, when two men ran up to the car, guns drawn.

Allen thought he was being robbed, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit he filed in 2016. He tried to lock the door, but one of the men burst in and grabbed him, threw him on the ground, and jumped on top of him. A second man told Allen that they’d been looking for him, punched him in the face, and also jumped on his back. “I don’t have any money, don’t shoot,” Allen recalled saying, right before a car with police sirens pulled up. One of the men on top of him yelled, “He’s resisting!” and three more officers jumped on top of him. He went home that night with a broken hand.

“I felt someone punching me in my upper torso and face,” Allen claimed in the lawsuit. He added that he tried to yell for help but was rapidly losing consciousness. “I felt a blow to the back of my head and went out.”

The plainclothes officers who Allen said jumped him — police officer Jozsef A. Tass and Jeremiah Williams, a special detective with the 47th Precinct in the Bronx — did not identify themselves as belonging to the New York Police Department, according to his lawsuit, which was dismissed last year after a jury found that Allen, who did not have legal representation, could not prove the officers’ use of excessive force. According to reporting by The Appeal, Williams testified that he pursued Allen because he saw him smoking a “marijuana cigarette,” and that he found a gun on Allen, a claim Allen pleaded guilty to in state court and later disputed in federal court. Allen was later caught up in a hugely controversial mass sweep, and Williams testified against him at trial.

In the wake of sustained protests against police brutality in recent weeks, the NYPD announced that the particularly violent plainclothes unit has been disbanded. It was one of a series of reforms promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have also floated ideas such as changing police priorities, reallocating funding, and speeding up disciplinary procedures in cases in which officers cause “substantial injury to a civilian.”

“You don’t need to protest, you won,” Cuomo told Black Lives Matter protesters on June 14.  “You accomplished your goal. Society says you’re right, the police need systemic reform.”

Activists are wary that the promised reforms will do anything to address the NYPD’s culture of impunity. The officers from the plainclothes unit, for example, were merely reshuffled into other jobs, a move one activist recently described to The Intercept as a “shell game.” On Tuesday, New York’s City Council passed a budget that includes shifting $1 billion away from the NYPD, a move protesters and progressive lawmakers say is a cosmetic change that will do little to change the nature of policing.

“The reforms cooked up by the mayor and governor aren’t going to fix this,” said Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology and the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. “Both Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo, in particular, have cozied up to police and correctional unions across the state. Meanwhile, de Blasio is deferential towards them. … He could order the commissioner to clean house. To fire certain officers. He just doesn’t do it.”

The NYPD’s Risk Management Bureau, which is supposed to identify problem officers, ends up protecting bad cops, said Vitale, who is the author of “The End of Policing.” “It’s damage control. And there are well-documented cases of officers who are seriously out of control. Firing those officers is consistent with the defund movement. That’s not saying we need no officers; that’s saying, fewer officers and let’s start with the worst ones.”

Based on a history of official complaints and lawsuits naming him, Williams may be a prime example of where to start. Over the course of Williams’s 18-year career with the NYPD, 60 complaints, involving 21 separate incidents, were lodged against him with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates NYPD misconduct complaints, according to records obtained via a public records request following the recent repeal of 50-a, a controversial law that shielded officers’ misconduct records from public view. For comparison, 41 percent of current NYPD service members have never had a complaint lodged against them, according to the CCRB’s 2018 annual report. Twenty-one percent have had only one complaint, 3 percent have had five, while 9 percent have more than six.

Between 2008 and 2018, there were 11 lawsuits that named Williams (usually including other officers) alleging police misconduct like excessive force and wrongful arrest, according to CAPstat, a project that tracks NYPD misconduct claims. Williams has been accused four times of anally penetrating a suspect, according to CCRB complaints reviewed by The  Intercept, as well as a federal lawsuit reported on by The Appeal. In a 2017 trial, Allen’s attorneys asked Williams if that conduct had earned him the nickname of “assman” in the neighborhood. Williams admitted that people call him “assman,” but disputed the moniker’s origins, The Appeal reported, citing court records. As recently as last year, he was accused in a CCRB complaint of using a chokehold during an arrest; that practice has been under intense scrutiny in New York since the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, yet it was not until last month that Cuomo signed a bill banning it.

The chokehold complaint, like 31 of the 60 allegations against Williams, were found by the CCRB to be “unsubstantiated,” which means that the board did not have enough evidence to reach a definitive conclusion, either way, according to the CCRB website. Only two allegations, stemming from the same complaint, meanwhile, were found to be “unfounded,” meaning the CCRB had enough evidence to say they were baseless. Williams was exonerated of three complaints, while five were found to be substantiated, including one related to a strip search. In 18 of the complaints, the complainant or the victim are listed as being “uncooperative,” which means that, after filing an initial complaint, the CCRB lost contact with the complainant or the complainant did not want to provide a signed statement.

For almost 20 years, Williams and other officers of the 47th Precinct have been accused of inflicting abuses on people in the Bronx, according to the records reviewed by The Intercept. But even the egregious actions Williams has been accused of may not fall under the vague “serious bodily injury” standard that de Blasio has identified as a target to crack down against.

But even if — a big if — de Blasio and Cuomo’s reforms get the most abusive officers fired, it’s not clear how they’d change the larger culture that enabled the abuses in the first place. In the complaints against him, it appears that Williams never acted alone, as other officers are also named. His partners and other officers on the scene have been accused of engaging in abuses like restricting a suspect’s breathing, as laid out in a 2019 CCRB complaint that was never resolved because the complainant did not cooperate. When Allen’s hand was broken during his 2015 arrest, he showed an officer at the precinct his protruding bone, according to his lawsuit; yet, rather than discipline Williams for the unruly arrest, the department awarded Williams an $11,000 raise soon after. Of the 11 lawsuits against Williams, the two that have been publicly settled cost the city $95,000; the remaining nine are either still pending or have an “unknown” outcome, according to CAPstat. Despite having so many civilian complaints lodged against him, Williams has been rewarded within the NYPD: Between 2008 and 2018, he got 13 raises, and was promoted from police officer to detective, joining the plainclothes unit.

Asked about Williams’s record, the NYPD referenced New York’s recent appeal 50-a. “The Department is committed to transparency and long advocated for reforms to 50-a. Since the law was repealed just last week, the Department has received a significant number of requests for disciplinary records that it had been prohibited from disclosing,” the NYPD said in a statement. The department declined to make Williams available for comment, and De Blasio’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaints and lawsuits against Williams allege that he put his hands inside people’s anuses four times. This behavior, ostensibly used to search for contraband, is explicitly prohibited by the NYPD, whose patrol guide section on strip searches prohibits body cavity searches in an all-caps note, unless the officer sees a foreign object and obtains a search warrant.

In one 2007 complaint to the CCRB, which the board could not reach a conclusion on, a complainant described the incident by saying he felt “raped.” Indeed, the FBI defines rape as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

The most recent of these complaints occurred just last September, when a Bronx man was approached by officers because they thought he had a bag of drugs, according to a complaint filed with the CCRB. According to Williams, who filed a report about the arrest with internal affairs, there was a brief struggle, during which an officer was pushed back and the man was arrested. The complainant claimed that Williams probed his anus during that arrest. The CCRB complaint mentions that the complainant’s sister went to the station house to complain about Williams, who she said held her brother on the ground by the throat, while another officer pressed his weight against his back. She said a “fat white cop” touched her breast and then she was arrested for “inciting a riot.” The CCRB did not reach a conclusion on the complaint, due to a lack of cooperation.

Diane Goldstein, a retired sergeant with close to 22 years with the Redondo Beach Police Department in southern California and member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, said that cavity searches are “never” appropriate in the field. “You would never be allowed to conduct a body cavity search for drugs out in the field,” Goldstein said. “No gray area.”

Williams, along with other officers from the 47th Precinct, was named in a 2017 lawsuit involving sexual harassment.

The complaint stemmed from the 2015 arrest of Cameron Hanson, who was arrested along with his girlfriend after a fight. Hanson said in a lawsuit that when he was booked into jail, he was searched, and no drugs or weapons were found on him. Later, according to the complaint, a white detective came into his cell and said, “Whoever has it, give it up.” The detective tugged on the waistband of Hanson’s sweatpants, peering inside his pants. Shocked by the detective’s behavior, Hanson leaned away. The officer slammed him face down on the floor and ripped off his pants, underwear, and shirt, leaving him fully naked, while kicking and punching him, according to the lawsuit. Close to 10 officers joined in, and Williams and five others are named in the complaint.

Hanson was shackled. The officers claimed to have found marijuana on him, and he was charged with unlawful possession of marijuana, harassment, and attempted assault. All the charges were eventually dismissed. Hanson’s lawsuit against the city was dismissed in December 2018 after the parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

Other complaints about Williams accuse him of framing a civilian and using excessive force.

For example, Shawn Wint sued Williams and Sgt. Eric Florio for civil rights violations, alleging they stopped and searched Wint and found no drugs or weapons, so they cast around and found a cigarette butt on the ground. They claimed that it was weed and that it belonged to Wint, using it as a pretext to arrest him, Wint claimed in a lawsuit. They had mistaken him for a neighborhood man nicknamed “Sho,” who they thought had information about crime in the area. Once Wint was fingerprinted a second time, the officers realized he wasn’t “Sho” and told him so, according to the lawsuit. To paper over their error, they charged Wint with unlawful possession of marijuana. He had to appear in court eight times before the charges were dropped.  Wint’s civil rights lawsuit is pending, with the defendants denying the substantive charges.

In a complaint stemming from a May 2019 incident, a man claimed that, after walking away from Williams and his partner, Williams said, “Why is that guy always walking away from us. The next time I catch him I’m going to slam him on the ground and plant everything I find on him.”  The CCRB ruled this complaint “unsubstantiated” due to not having enough evidence.

Williams and other officers were accused of physical abuse against teenagers in a May 2007 complaint, also found to be “unsubstantiated.” The teens alleged that as they tried to call passersby for help during their arrest, an officer slammed one of their heads into the police car window so hard it shattered the glass, leaving a gash on his face.

Even with de Blasio and Cuomo’s promised reforms, Vitale is not optimistic the NYPD’s abuses will be curbed.

“Throughout their tenures both de Blasio and Cuomo have shielded police from accountability,” Vitale said. “While their recent support for repealing 50-A are laudable, the reforms they are currently proposing are unlikely to make a major dent in the culture of impunity at the NYPD.”

The post NYPD’s Culture of Impunity Sees an Officer Repeatedly Accused of Physical and Sexual Abuse Rising Through the Ranks appeared first on The Intercept.

No ID, No Job: How Coronavirus Left Parolees in Excruciating Limbo After Leaving Prison

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/07/2020 - 9:00pm in




Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

When the 29-year-old parolee walked out of the New Jersey state prison where he had been incarcerated for the last six years, he felt that he had stepped “into a frozen world.” He was released on parole on March 11, as coronavirus cases in the state began to spike, just 10 days before Gov. Phil Murphy implemented a statewide stay-at-home order.

If the last three months of pandemic lockdowns have felt for many like time in suspension, for the man I will call Raoul, they have been an excruciating state of limbo: freed from the horrors of incarceration but unable to access the basic tools with which to restart his life, like a state ID or driver’s license. “If you don’t have an ID, you just can’t do anything,” said Raoul, who asked me not to use his real name so he could speak frankly about his position as a parolee without fear of retribution from the state.

The offices of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission were closed until the end of June. And Raoul is waiting on necessary documents from his parole officer, who is also navigating pandemic-related closures. He has been unable to apply for a job or open a bank account. In order to get by, he has been forced to take risks that could again put his freedom in jeopardy — including driving without a license for a food delivery app by using a family member’s account and car. “I’ve just had to put myself into survival mode,” he told me.

The risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic to prison populations cannot be overstated. The virus introduced a new urgency to already crucial efforts toward mass decarceration in this country; for the most part, governors and state prison systems responded by permitting vastly insufficient number of releases. But the story of how mass incarceration — the terrible ills of which have been put in stark relief by the coronavirus — continues beyond the prison walls. We can’t overlook what happens when people are released.

Under pre-pandemic conditions, formerly incarcerated people already faced steep barriers to accessing employment, housing, and necessary material resources. People who enter the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor, only to be rendered poorer still though years of incarceration and the added stigma that follows a person beyond the prison gates. As with so many social brutalities, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Former prisoners reenter a world of soaring unemployment and shuttered social service offices. For those in Raoul’s position, even the first step toward getting life on track — getting an ID — is thwarted.

“Without access to something as basic as an ID, you’re still inside while you’re outside,” said Anthony Dixon, director of community engagement at the Parole Preparation Project, a New York-based advocacy and direct support organization. “And they could easily clear this hurdle when people are inside.” Dixon stressed that state prisons should certainly have the capacity, and all the necessary information, to provide parolees with non-driver IDs before they are released. Some states like Louisiana already do this (though the system there falls short, too, since much of the state’s incarcerated population is overseen by the equivalent of county jails, where there is no such service).

“Without access to something as basic as an ID, you’re still inside while you’re outside.”

In New Jersey, as in New York, individuals leaving state prison are provided a “release ID,” which serves as legal identification but marks the person as a former prisoner. “I can’t use that to apply for jobs,” Raoul told me. (Tony Ciavolella, a spokesperson for the New Jersey State Parole Board, told me that “the State is fully cognizant of how important it is for parolees to obtain the appropriate identification which will help them as they navigate through society.”)

Motor Vehicle Commission offices reopened in New Jersey on June 29. But like many formerly incarcerated people, Raoul currently lacks the documentation needed to obtain a state ID or driver’s license. He cannot obtain a copy of his birth certificate from his native Colombia, where he left to seek asylum in the U.S. at age 19, having faced deadly persecution. He is waiting to receive other alternative documents from his parole officer, who he said has been working from home. Dixon told me that one or two out of every five incarcerated people he has worked with in New York leave prison without either a Social Security card or a birth certificate, despite the fact that the prison is supposed to ensure that they have both.

Meanwhile, the last three months have presented challenge after challenge for Raoul: His family held a fundraiser so he would be able to pay his rent, but he was soon kicked out of an apartment when the property owner learned that he was a parolee. Despite fears around the virus spreading, Raoul stayed with a friend and then his sister, who has since helped him find a new place. Through his work as an advocate for juvenile justice, Raoul has found a small network of support. “Thanks to that, rent will be paid this month,” he said. “If I did not have my family and friends, I don’t know what I would do. But it is a weird feeling to have to rely on people like this.”

He told me that the only useful advice his parole officer has given him is information about nearby food banks, which he has been relying on to eat. He spent time walking around his Elizabeth, New Jersey, neighborhood to seek paid odd-jobs like lawn mowing, with little success. An employment agency told him that he will need a state ID before applying for jobs.

That’s when Raoul took the risk and turned to the ride-sharing app. He started driving for Uber Eats without a license. One night, he was pulled over by a cop in Newark. “I just started crying,” he told me. In a rare stroke of good fortune, he explained his situation to the officer, who let him go. Ever since, he’s been largely doing bike deliveries instead but still using an account that isn’t his.

Three weeks ago, Raoul was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia. While he tested negative for Covid-19, his breathing, he said, continues to feel constricted. He has no medical insurance and owes $800 he cannot pay.

Raoul’s situation is not unique. It exemplifies the way seemingly minor bureaucratic obstacles, which the state could easily ameliorate, make life unlivable for those who have already been denied their freedom and dignity by the carceral system. Advocates and organizations around the country have long been dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated people while the state refuses to; the pandemic has only stymied their efforts further. “Before the shutdowns, we were making headway in streamlining the process to get people driver’s licenses, which they need,” said Kelly Orians, co-director of New Orleans-based nonprofit the First 72+, which works with individuals transitioning to life after prison. “When the Covid crisis hit, so much of the progress we made was lost.” As Orians put it, “People are coming out, and everything seems hopeless.”

Government offices are reopening, but as coronavirus cases continue to soar in the failed state that is contemporary America, shutdowns could well return. In the meantime, backlogs to process applications for IDs are now vast and the need for housing, food, and basic resources for survival is skyrocketing.

Even while the “frozen world” into which Raoul walked begins to thaw, the landscape beneath, which was always harsh, is ever more treacherous for poor, marginalized people of color who have been subjected to carceral so-called justice. The ground needs razing; the struggle to ensure that everyone in a position like Raoul’s can walk truly free will continue long after this interminable pandemic.

The post No ID, No Job: How Coronavirus Left Parolees in Excruciating Limbo After Leaving Prison appeared first on The Intercept.

Occupied Territory: Why Chicago’s History Matters for Today’s Demands to Defund Police

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/07/2020 - 10:00pm in



Protests, marches, and demonstrations against police violence and systemic racism are continuing across the United States, as calls to defund the police and abolish the prison system are intensifying. The crucial leadership of the Movement for Black Lives has brought these issues to an international stage. The resilience of these activists is a sight to behold, to emulate, and to be grateful for.

As activists and some lawmakers ramp up campaigns to defund police in cities across the United States, it is important to analyze some broad historical questions about the mission and culture behind policing. Why do we have police in this country? Why are they organized, armed, and deployed in the ways that they are? How did police achieve so much political power? And how have police forces been used to defend the interests of the elite, crush organized labor, and rain terror on Black, brown, and poor communities? On the latest episode of Intercepted, we decided to examine these questions by taking an in-depth look at the origins and history of one of the most notorious and racist police forces in this country — the Chicago Police Department — with historian Simon Balto, a Black studies professor at the University of Iowa.


Image: Courtesy UNC Press

Balto’s new book, “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago From Red Summer to Black Power” is a brilliant work of scholarship that chronicles the history of the Chicago Police Department from the mid-1800s to the 1970s. “Occupied Territory” uses primary source documents and testimonials to give lie to some of the most pernicious and ill-informed characterizations made about Black people and communities in the United States, including by powerful political and media figures. At the same time, the book lays out the origins of the Chicago police as a moralistic enforcement agency, established by white politicians and land and business owners with the primary aim of policing the behavior of European immigrants who were largely Irish and German. As Chicago’s Black population began to grow rapidly, the police was swiftly transformed into a militarized terror force. Cops systematically and violently trapped Black Chicagoans in poverty. They facilitated the use of Black communities as drug-infested business centers for white organized crime gangs, including Al Capone’s operation. And they crushed movements for workers’ rights, tenants rights, and basic human rights. The book also tells the often suppressed history of Black political organizing and rebellion in Chicago and offers lessons on how this history speaks to the demands and struggles of the present moment.

On Intercepted, we aired an excerpt of our conversation with Balto. What follows is a transcript of the extended interview, lightly edited for clarity.


JS: Simon Balto, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.

SB: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

JS: So I want to begin by going pretty far back in U.S. history and, in a general sense, just talk about how police came to be in the United States. What are the early origins of the idea of city police forces in the U.S.?

SB: It’s a complicated question in the sense that it varies somewhat depending on the location. So, I think that the important thing to understand though regardless of where we are looking is that the idea that the police exist primarily to keep a generic “public” safe is something of an invention. So, if we’re looking at the origins of the police, they primarily were implemented to do one or both of two things, and that is to preserve economic hierarchy or to preserve racial hierarchy. So, let me map out a little bit of what that looks like. In a number of southern cities, the early police forces either grow directly out of, or overlap significantly with, early slave patrols.

So, in other words, some of the original police mission in those places is to surveil and contain and control Black people who are trying to commit the crime of freeing themselves. In other places, though, it looks a little different. So, in a city like Chicago, for example, the early police department is developed primarily by elite business owners in the city with the primary purpose of controlling immigrant behavior that they deem to be unruly and just undesirable. They were especially concerned with the drinking habits of German and Irish immigrants. But their other primary purpose was to suppress labor militancy. So one of the early purposes of the CPD is to make sure that workers who are trying to strike for an 8-hour workday or to better their working conditions, the police force is deployed to suppress them. And it depends on the context in terms of where we’re looking, but I think it’s important for people to understand that when people first founded these police departments, they were not designed to promote some sort of public safety. They were designed with very specific political repressions in mind. And actually what’s funny to me is that, back when police departments were first being implemented, in a lot of places they were seen as anti-American.

The case of New York is actually really instructive here. So, when the New York police department is first implemented in, I believe it’s the 1840s when New York first gets its force. Chicago’s not until 1853. But in the 1840s, New Yorkers actively resisted the implementation of a New York police department and the reason that they did so was that the generational memory of having the city be occupied by British forces during the Revolutionary War, the police department reminded people of those occupying forces. And so people decried the implementation of a police department as antithetical to the American vision of independence and liberty. And so it’s interesting to think about in 2020, how the police really originated in order to protect hierarchy and were actively resisted by people when they were first being put into place.

JS: Let’s back up because one of the things that you do in this really remarkable book is you tell the story of how the demographics in Chicago were shaped, as the age of industrialization really took hold in the United States. Just paint a bit of a picture for us of how Black people ended up coming to Chicago in large numbers, when they did, and who was there building up the city at the time Black people started to settle in Chicago.

SB: Yeah, I mean Chicago is very much a classic city of immigrants that during the second half of the 1800s you have a lot of immigrants, white settlers moving into the city. Obviously it’s all colonized territory. It was originally indigenous land. But you have a lot of white settlers that flood into the city in the late 1800s, largely on the backs of industrialization. But you have Black people that filter into the city throughout the period of its early settlement. Actually, the first non-indigenous settler in the city of Chicago was a Black man. The Black presence in Chicago is literally as old as the city itself. But it’s not until the 1910s that there’s really a huge wave of Black in-migration into the city. It’s part of the larger Great Migration that really radically reshaped the entire demographics of the country. But during the 1910s and onward into the 1920s you get hundreds of thousands of Black people that move into Chicago and that’s when Chicago begins to have what we would call a statistically significant Black population.

I want to be careful to not erase the fact that there were tens of thousands of Black people living in the city before that, but it is to say that during the 1910s and 20s the Black population increases in a really, really significant way and then it does so again during the second period of the Great Migration, which really is inaugurated in the 1940s and continues on into the end of the 1960s. So it’s kind of a two-fold explosion of the Black population in Chicago, the first one being in the 1910s and 20s and the second one coming in the 1940s.

JS: Let’s back up for a moment and then we’ll come back and pick it up from the 1910s. You mentioned earlier this notion that the police force in Chicago and elsewhere, that originally it was a force organized around protecting the elites and their interests, and that it served as more of a moralistic enforcement organization. Later it would go on to be a strike breaker and then we have the racialization of police operations, where Black people start to get arrested in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers — targeted, beaten, tortured. But take us back to before the Black population started to expand. Tell the origin story of the Chicago police, the role of German and Irish immigrants.

SB: Yeah, the police in Chicago, as I said, the police department is officially founded in 1853 and the reasons why it is founded in that particular moment is that you have a large immigrant population that nativist, white people in the city just find essentially undesirable. So this is a period in history in which people of German and Irish descent and some other European populations who we would today characterize as “white,” were not really embraced as fellow white people. And so, controlling their habits and controlling their public behaviors was really of prime interest to Chicago city boosters in the mid-century. And so controlling those behaviors becomes the impetus behind putting into place a police department. And so it’s a police department that is originally pushed by these civic elites who essentially force the hand of politicians to put a police force into place, but they actually are the original funders of the police department too. So it’s literally a police department that is founded and funded by elite business owners with the express intent of controlling people who are deemed to be racialized others. And so, I think that when we think about how, now, the police in 2020 function essentially as a system of racial control, it actually makes perfect sense that we could sort of trace that lineage of how, 170 years ago, when the police department was first founded, it’s in order to control people who were deemed to be racialized others, that there’s a continuity there to what the police do, right? It’s just who they do it to is what changes.

JS: Let’s also talk about the Illinois that Black people were arriving in. You detail how some forms of slavery were legal in Illinois, despite the fact that it was in the north, that there was the equivalent of Black Codes, disenfranchisement, and forms of slavery were permitted. Just talk a bit about the conditions that Black people in Chicago or Illinois, more broadly, faced during this time of the turn of the century.

SB: Illinois is part of the United States and the United States is a nation whose history is premised in anti-Blackness, among other things. Illinois was a place that had a lot of anti-Black laws written into place. And those laws that were in place that supposedly protected peoples’ civil rights regardless of race were usually unenforced. One of the interesting pieces of Chicago’s history — and this is not an insight unique to me — I draw from the work of other people who detailed early civil rights crusades of Black Chicagoans, especially. A lot of Black political activity around the turn of the century revolves around trying to force the state and various municipalities, including Chicago, to actually follow the letter of civil rights laws that are in place and facing extraordinary amounts of reluctance on the part of officials to do anything about it. I say this as a ride and die Midwesterner, but the idea that so many people have [a view] of the Midwest and the North more broadly as a place of freedom and liberty, you know that idea needs to be pretty carefully qualified. It was a place that was fundamentally different than the South was under chattle slavery. That the South is a society completely structured around the institution of slavery but — Illinois is not a place of benevolent whites who were just willing to embrace Black people.

JS: Talk also about the rise of the south side of Chicago as what is described historically as a kind of Black Mecca with Black businesses thriving, cultural institutions, people taking over housing that had been occupied by immigrants, often taking the lowest quality houses and trying to build from that something that was viable and vibrant.

SB: The history of Chicago’s south side is one of both oppression and achievement, simultaneously. When Black people move into Chicago during the first Great Migration, options in a lot of things are limited, right? Options in housing are limited, as you point out. Options in occupations are limited. And so, it’s a city that is structurally designed to disadvantage Black people at that moment in time. And so, what that means is that Black folks generally speaking are, both because of, in some cases, their own interest of living near relatives, or friends, or other people that they know, or where their church is, and social activities are, centralized — people move to the south side partly because of those reasons — but they also move to the south side because people in other parts of the city don’t want them.

And so that takes the form, in some cases, of physical violence. So, for example, in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, dozens of Black homes and businesses are bombed as people try to move into areas that are deemed for white people only. And then that also takes the form of more systematized, legal violence. And so that takes the form of, for example, restrictive covenants that are written into housing mortgages that prevent the sale or renting of huge swaths of the city to people who are not “of the caucasian race.” And so, within that context of limited options, Black Chicagoans build. As you said, it’s a place of extraordinary Black political achievement, Black cultural achievement. And so it’s a story again that’s the duality of Black history in a nutshell of racial repression and then incredible achievement.

JS: Donald Trump and his supporters and right-wing Republicans mention Chicago, “Oh, look! They’re killing each other and look at the crime.” And one of the narratives or stories that you tell in this book that I found so striking and important for people to understand is the way in which, beginning in the early 1900s, the Chicago authorities, the police, the government, local officials — at the time it was in the hands of the Republicans, but then the Democrats would take over and they govern in perpetuity to this day — but in the early 1900s Chicago basically abandoned the “Black Belt” of the south side of Chicago and pushed the operations for prostitution, other forms of vice, alcohol, then it extends into Al Capone and prohibition, but they basically create this Levee, this is the area of the city where all of this seedy stuff is going to be allowed to take place, where people will need to go to this community to take part in it and the police are basically going to stay away from it and let the cards fall where they fall. It seems like in the early 1990s, based on your scholarship, what you’re drawing a connection between is the outbreak of crime in these overwhelmingly Black areas being linked to a systematic abandonment of those communities combined with the encouragement for organized crime in the form of prostitution, alcohol, later drugs. That would be the headquarters of it, would be where the Black people are living.

SB: Right. The logic that policy makers and police officials operate under in that moment is that, “look we’re not going to be able to prevent sex work. We’re not going to ever be able to abolish drinking, and so on, and so forth. So, what are we going to do about it?” And what they decide to do about it is that they’ll push it into places where people, because of the color of their skin, lack much political weight to do otherwise.

So, the police are pretty explicit about essentially pushing the sex trade into Black neighborhoods. During Prohibition as well, you have white mobsters who set up operations in Black communities because they know that the police just really won’t care. And so when we talk about the cultivation of vice and other forms of matters deemed criminal, whether they should be or not, it’s very much put into place along racialized lines, operating under the racist logic that we can’t get rid of these things but we can put them in places that we don’t really care about and that other people, kind of the dominant population won’t really care about. So we see that in places in the late 1800s and onward into the 1900s.

JS: Let’s talk for a moment, before we move forward in this history, of the role of the Chicago police in breaking up strikes, attacking organized labor, ultimately then Red Squads that were aimed at taking down the perceived radicals. But I think it’s important to begin with the Haymarket Square uprising. Just briefly explain when it happened and what it was about and what happened there.

SB: Yeah, Haymarket is really a seminal moment in Chicago’s history. So, it’s 1886. There’s been increasing labor militancy and demands for an 8-hour workday and better working conditions, not just in Chicago but, in the larger Chicago metro area, and also just across the country. And so, with Haymarket you have a moment in time in which people are gathered in a labor protest and the Chicago police arrive there and it’s coming in the wake of increased hostility between workers and police officers in Chicago. And what exactly happened that precipitated the events at Haymarket remains a little bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that police ended up opening fire on this crowd of workers and ended up killing a number of people, including a number of police officers through friendly fire. And so in the aftermath of this, it’s essentially a bunch of show trials that are implemented to root out the people who were organizing the events at Haymarket. And it’s essentially a moment in time that’s really important, I think, for crystallizing wider public support for the police in Chicago, especially among corporate interests.

JS: Well, as you write, the Chicago Tribune organized fundraisers for the police and the first pension program for police was organized.

SB: Right. And so when we think about the history of public support for the police, it’s through events like this where you have, again, people who are perceived to be radical agitators or outsiders who the police are called upon to repress. But again it’s people who are organizing to try to better the conditions for people who are underpaid, overworked, who work in hazardous conditions. What our perceptions of what public goods are is, I think, an important metric for thinking about what police do. We see, as you point out, the Trib and other people really pushing for support of the police in the aftermath of Haymarket when, if we actually recalibrate what we think is important, we can better understand that the police are not on the right side of that history. And I think that with the benefit of hindsight we see that, or at least I see that. But at that moment in time people failed to really connect the dots between who is on the right side of this.

JS: Yeah and in the book you mark that incident at Haymarket as a turning point that results in increased funding and equipment and militarization of the police.

SB: Right and that’s sort of a constant where you have these moments of really extraordinary police violence that could be moments of reckoning with the police power but instead result in the doubling down of peoples’ investments in the police.

JS: I want to also move to the “race riots” of 1919, but just to give people a statistic that you unearthed and cite in this book: From 1917 to 1921, 58 Black homes or residences were bombed because the residents or owners of those properties were Black people who had moved to overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. And the police did almost nothing in response to this spate over four years of bombings of Black homes where people had dared to move a bit outside of the “Black Belt.”

SB: The history of Chicago’s police department when it comes to racial violence is essentially one of protecting white interests and doing very little to protect Black life or property. It inspires some interesting historical moments. Black folks organized around these bombings to essentially begin trying to do the work that the police should technically be doing. You have local organizers that essentially try to launch investigations into who’s behind these bombings. In other words, doing what we think the police should be doing. You also have other Black people who talk about arming themselves to protect their own homes and businesses. So, embracing armed self-defense because the police won’t do the job. And we see this play out in various forms over and over again. The same thing happens in the 1940s and 50s when Black people are again moving into the city and moving into previously white neighborhoods where white people are engaged in straight up terrorism against these people when they’re moving into white neighborhoods. That includes arson, it includes turning over cars, includes beating. It’s all sorts of different terrorist methods to prevent integration of city neighborhoods. And again, and again, and again, the police fail to do the job of protecting Black life and property.

I mean in some cases, for years, you have mobs of white terrorists who try to drive Black people out of their homes. This was most famously the case at the Trumbull Park housing project and when civil rights leaders in Chicago in 1955, for example, are holding memorial rallies for Emmett Till after he’s lynched in Mississippi. They tied directly the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi to the ongoing terrorism that white mobs are visiting upon Black people in Chicago and the failure of the police department in Chicago to actually protect them from those terrorist mobs.

So, there’s an interesting linkage that Black organizers are making between terrorism in Mississippi and terrorism in Chicago and the fact that Mayor Richard Daley, who’s newly elected in that moment, issues a condemnation of the lynching of Emmett Till but refuses to actually respond to Black demands in Chicago for the police department to actually keep Black people safe. And so it’s an ongoing thread that when white people use political violence to try to prevent Black migration and integration of white neighborhoods, that the police department just continuously refuses to actually do the job of protecting Black people.

I would just add, as one final note, that one of the responses that police officials make that is particularly galling is that when Black organizers are demanding that the police actually protect Black life and Black property in these types of moments, the police officials’ response is to suggest that Black people should put a pause on integration because having to dispatch police officers to these sites of white violence is sapping the city’s resources to have police coverage in other parts of the city. So, in other words, police officials essentially have an intellectual ranking of their priorities and wherever protecting Black life and property falls upon that ranking, it’s somewhere very low and much further down on what they see as other priorities.

JS: At the time of the 1919 “race riot,” as you document in your book, the Black population of Chicago was not yet big enough to be at the center of policing policy or at the center of public policy in Chicago. But the summer of 1919 really started to shift that in terms of the police focus. I think it’s important to just back up and remind people of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the riot of 1919. As you document in the book, this started when a group of young Black men —  kids — were in a part of Lake Michigan that was unofficially the Black section and then you had the white section not far from it. And they had gone out on a raft in “their area” of Lake Michigan and the tide starts to sweep them southward toward the “white area” of the beach and a white man on the shore starts pelting their boat with rocks and stones. They lose control of the raft. One of the young men goes under and dies. No one responds to go and get him. His friends come ashore and they approach a Black Chicago police officer and try to identify this man as being the culprit who was pummeling them with these rocks and stones and then a white officer intervenes and then that man is let go and nothing happens to him.

But that sparks — and it’s important to talk about that moment where the Black police officer is approached by these young Black men and he is overridden by the white officer — it was that response to this incident that took place that ultimately sparked what would become known as the “race riots” of 1919. So, Simon pick it up from there.

SB: You laid out pretty well what the precipitating event was. I think it’s important for people to call back to the period of 1917-1921 where there are 58 bombings. Chicago was, in some ways, already a bit of a tinderbox when this all happened. But people were pretty clear in the aftermath of these riots that ultimately killed 38 people, that the reason why it all started was really this white police officer named Daniel Callahan, it was his refusal to allow an arrest of a white murderer that really set everything off and really had set the course of events for what happened.

So over the coming days, the city essentially descends into what people call a race riot but was essentially white marauders going through mostly the Black south side, parts of the Black south side. There were other incidents in a few other places in the city, but essentially you have white youth gangs especially, more generally white mobs, terrorizing and killing Black people; and then Black people taking up arms to respond to this terrorism. So it’s not just a story of white terrorism and Black victimization, it’s also a story of Black self-defense in the face of that terrorism. But it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that people were very clear about the fact that Callahan was largely responsible for setting this chain of events in motion. You could also make the case that George Stauber, which was the name of the man who murdered Eugene Williams, was also responsible, but people said that if Callahan had allowed Stauber to be arrested, that [it’s] likely what happened afterwards would not have happened, at least not in the way it did.

JS: As you write in your book, the chief of police in Chicago cited that moment as the inciting moment and said, openly, that allowing that arrest to happen would likely have prevented it. He actually suspended the officer, but then in the end the officer goes on and has his career as a Chicago police officer. But even the chief of police noted what you’re saying, which is people were demanding an arrest. A white officer overrode a Black officer. This man was not arrested and everything followed was a result of that inciting moment.

SB: Right. And, as you mentioned, Callahan is suspended for a while. He’s later reinstated. And he’s a man who’s very proudly racist. When he’s interviewed by the official city commission that was put in place to study what had happened during the so-called riots, [he] explicitly says that if something like that were to happen again, he felt fairly confident that his fellow white Chicagoans would stand beside him, in waging this race war. It’s really striking to think about the fact that he was so willing and open in just saying it, as a matter of public record. And we can look at him as a particularly awful example of this, but he’s also, in a lot of ways, representative of the larger ideologies that shaped what policing looked like in Chicago at the time.

JS: So walk us through that decade that follows that killing in 1919 and then the riots, the rebellion, the self-determination that Black people were asserting in response to this. Because it’s a crucial decade where you have the rise of organized labor; you have the Communist party starting to become very strong in Chicago; you have a lot of worker-centered uprisings. You then have the Great Depression hit and it’s sort of the era when the Democrats start campaigning for power in Chicago and one of the central themes of their platform was “law and order,” as we now see Trump tweeting this all the time. But you also trace the genesis of that term in the Chicago political machine. So lay out what happens throughout the 20s and into the early 30s regarding Chicago police and the growing Black population of the city.

SB: In the aftermath of the riots in 1919, there’s some patterns that emerged in the study of the riots that I think are really important to understand in terms of what policing looked like. What comes out in the aftermath of the riots is that it was very clear that police were operating generally under the assumption that Black people were the criminals and white people were the victims in the riot, despite the fact that that was a total inversion of the reality. What I mean by that is, you look at the arrest records of who the police were arresting during the riots — it was very clear that the focus was trained pretty steadily upon arresting Black people. This leads to some striking things. The grand jury who’s convened to hear cases of people who had been arrested during the riots actually, effectively goes on strike until more white rioters are brought up before them because even they sense that this is a really, really striking racial disproportion in terms of how Black people are being treated during and after the riots by the police department. And that really shapes a lot of what is happening with the police down to the present day in the sense that Black people are left essentially to their own devices when it comes to having to protect themselves during that moment. So they are not offered adequate protection by the police and, also, they’re incredibly overpoliced, right? So, you have people that are simultaneously feeling all of the repressions of the police with none of the supposed benefits of it. And that’s really, in a lot of ways, the guiding thesis that animates a lot of what I trace in the book that follows.

In terms of the specific decade or decade plus that follows, it’s a really important decade politically for Chicago. And what I mean by that is: This is a period of time in which the Republican machine and the Democratic machine are really vying for control of the city and it’s during this moment, by the end of the 1920s, that the Democratic political machine that has a stranglehold on Chicago really emerges from the fray as being the political machine that’s going to control the city’s future. When that political machine coheres and asserts its dominance, it’s really disinterested and actually actively hostile to Black people because Black voters had traditionally been voting Republican. And so, at that founding moment of this powerful machine, it’s organized really explicitly around, if not anti-Blackness — although I think you could say anti-Blackness — but it’s organized really with no interest in responding at all to Black grievances or Black needs or anything like that. And that manifests in the police department because the political machine really has extraordinary amounts of control over the police.

The relationship between the two is incredibly incestuous in that Democratic politicians essentially appoint their friends and neighbors and family members to positions on the police force. You get people that have essentially no qualifications for the job other than just knowing the right people and so the Democratic machine totally distorts and twists the demographics of the police force and how the police actually operate to the advantage of white neighborhoods and the disadvantage of Black ones. And this is a story that continues to unfold and manifest over time in the coming decades. And part, also, of what the Democratic machine is doing during that moment, as you point out, is asserting “law and order” over, again, people who are, as we saw back in the context of Haymarket, people who are deemed to be politically radical. And that manifests most strikingly in the ways that it treats and responds to Black communist organizers on the south side. Again, this is in the emergent, early years of the Great Depression. The Communist Party is extraordinarily active on Chicago’s southside and it’s really, really active in terms of battling austerity measures that the city is putting in place. And where this takes shape most clearly is in anti-eviction organizing. And so, you would get landlords who are booting people out of their homes when they can’t make rent and when they are doing that, it’s the sheriff’s department and oftentimes police officers who are helping them do so — who are arriving at the scene to help essentially just take all their peoples’ possessions and essentially just leave them on the curb.

And so what communist organizers do is essentially mobilize fleets of people to go into these homes and once the evictions have been completed, they just take all the possessions and put them back, and essentially move people back into their own homes. And so it’s a fairly radical denial of the state’s authority to make people houseless, but it’s also a rejection of the police’s authority to aid in that process. And so the police engage in really, really increasingly hostile confrontation, and eventually violent exchanges with these organizers, and so that leads to, oftentimes, police killing people who are trying to prevent evictions from happening. But also this police repression then has the counter effect of actually driving up a lot of public support for these organizers who are doing this anti-austerity work. And so you have tens of thousands of people out in the streets after the police kill three Black communists in one of these anti-eviction events. So you have tens of thousands of people out in the streets, paying respects to these men who have been killed. You have people hanging the mayor in effigy in protest to police brutality. It’s a moment in which the police power is asserting itself to control Black radical organizing but it’s also a moment in time in which there’s some pretty astute and important resistance to the assertion of that authority.

JS: Yeah and as you point out in the book, and so much of your book is incredibly relevant to the moment that we’re living through right now, you point out that during this period, leftist organizers, communists, and others begin to interweave the struggle, the anti-racist struggle, with the anti-capitalist struggle and then the state’s response is often overwhelming force and brutality. You start to see a spike in police torture of, particularly of Black men while they’re in custody and you had the formation of the Red Squad. And among the tactics of the Red Squad that you document in the book was ramming police vehicles into crowds of people.

SB: As a historian, watching what’s unfolding now, I mean I just saw this morning or yesterday the video of the Detroit police officer ramming his car through protesters and it’s striking to me all the parallels that exist, which is not to say that everything remains static from the 1930s to now, but the degree to which it rhymes and the way we can see the past playing out in the present is really striking.

But yeah, the Red Squad, which is essentially the “anti-subversive” squad is initially put in place to deal with political radicals. So it’s a wing of the police department that is explicitly tasked with controlling politically radical groups and individuals, but uniformly, who are deemed politically radical, are essentially left-wing individuals and organizations. I’ve been in the Red Squad’s files and they’re really striking in a lot of ways and they’re very incomplete because the police department destroyed a lot of them before they were actually turned over to the Chicago history museum. But, what’s striking about them is the degree to which you will find very, very little evidence that they had any interest at all in white terrorist organizations or white supremacist groups. Although it’s founded to combat “political extremism,” really it doesn’t take very long at all for them to train their focus very very heavily on Black organizers and Black organizations. And, I think part of that is because, as you point out, a lot of the Black organizing that is done is a fundamental critique of the very organization of the city itself. I mean that it’s not just about racial predation and battling white supremacy. It’s also about the various ways in which that predation and white supremacy manifests itself in material forms in the city, too. Black organizers are challenging the ways in which, structurally, the city is arranged in ways that disadvantage Black communities. I think that part of the explanation for why the Red Squad was so interested in Black organizers was because the Red Squad themselves understood, and members of the Red Squad and leaders of the Red Squad understood that Black critiques of the ways that Chicago was arranged had very, very deep implications for the ways that the city would be able to operate.

JS: Of course in the 1920s, you had this resurgence and interest around the Ku Klux Klan among white supremacists and of course it also existed in the north, but extending all the way into the 30s and 40s, the relationship between the Chicago police and white vigilante actors or groups.

SB: There’s an interesting and deep, if somewhat difficult to find in the archives, relationship between the police force and hate groups. I had some brief Twitter exchanges with some other scholars trying to figure out if people had done much research on this and it seems to me like most of us have just had a hard time finding much in the archives. But what I have been able to find is really telling. The most striking moment for me is, in the late 1960s, there’s a cell of Ku Klux Klansmen who are Chicago police department officers and who are recruiting within the police department to try to expand their ranks. And what I found really striking about it, besides the fact of their existence, was the fact that they were apparently doing this recruiting for about a year before they were outed and ultimately fired. And the reason that they were ultimately outed and fired was because a Black police officer got wind of what was going on and finally reported this activity. But what that means is that, for a year, Klansmen were organizing within the police department among white officers and no one reported it. And I think that that in and of itself is really telling in terms of how just accepted as the norm this sort of thing was, even if it was an unspoken reality. And the things that these Klansmen were talking about doing was crazy. Essentially what they were plotting to do was to assassinate a number of high ranking officials in the city and essentially get “Black militants” blamed for it. And their explicit goal was to incite a race war. And so, again, when we think about how we know now that white supremacists have been exploiting this current moment to essentially — in some ways attacking cops — essentially to get Black Lives Matter protesters blamed for it as inciting this violence. And so it’s again one of those interesting parallels from how the past rhymes with the present.

JS: There’s an extraordinary document that you cite in the book from 1951 from the Civil Rights Congress. They delivered a petition to the United Nations Genocide Convention — this is 1951 — under the title “We charge genocide: The historic petition to the United Nations for relief from a crime of the United States government against the Negro people.” The document, you write, “gathered evidence of the murders of American Blacks and the abuse, harassment, and terror unleashed on them in the years since World War II: “Once the classic lynching was the rope,” activists wrote, “now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American, the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”” Give the context for this document. Who wrote it and what was happening at that moment?

SB: Yeah. I mean, so, it’s a really powerful document, I mean, and it’s just a little bit — I mean it’s overwhelming in its evidence.

JS: Just to clarify, this document — this is Black organizers charging the United States at the United Nations with, effectively with genocide because of the conduct of the police in cities like Chicago.

SB: It’s partly about the police. It’s not only about the police. So the context behind it is that the years immediately after World War II is a period of incredible racist violence in the United States. You have a lot of returning Black servicemen who come back and the image of Black men in army uniforms so enrages many white supremacists that Black servicemen are straight up lynched in uniform for the crime of wearing their uniform. Because it was a refutation of the logic of white supremacy. And so, you have that factoring into the “We charge genocide” document, but they were also very, very concerned about the ways in which police both abetted that racist violence by not doing anything about it but also contributed directly to it. So, the “We charge genocide” authors documented the ways in which police officers from Birmingham to Chicago were actively contributing tothe murder of Black people. And so it’s a really, really striking document that had the resonance that it continues to have is pretty remarkable. And actually there’s a coalition of young Black activists in recent years in Chicago that actually organized themselves under the masthead of “We charge genocide” and went and testified to the United Nations again about police violence in Chicago and elsewhere. And so it’s one of those documents that is sort of depressingly relevant to our current time. When we look at these overwhelming lists and accountings of Black people killed through state violence, just in recent years, the “We charge genocide” document is the 1951 equivalent to those accountings and it’s really a pretty incredible document.

JS: I want to make sure we get to more contemporary history, but I really do think that there’s a utilitarian value for all of us to hearing the stories that you’ve documented in this book to understand how we got to where we are today. And just one other historical episode I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned earlier the murder of Emmett Till. He was of course lynched in August of 1955 and his mother basically had to smuggle his body back to Chicago and put it on public display so that the world could see what happened to her child. It was during that period when activists began to refer to Chicago as “Little Mississippi.” But I want to talk about the significance of what Emmett Till’s mother did with that action by taking her son’s dead body, after he was lynched, and then putting it on display in Chicago for the world to see what happened to him.

SB: Yeah, it’s a really important moment in our nation’s history. What it meant is a pretty sprawling question, but I would say what it meant most directly was that it had the effect of activating new people into activism that had not previously been politically active. A lot of people who were young members of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and the 1960s referred to themselves as the “Till generation” because they talked about how when they saw the image of Emmett Till’s brutally mutilated body they saw someone who could have been them, is essentially how they talked about it. And so it had this really important catalyzing effect on people to become more politically engaged and then those were the people who would go on to really change the world in a lot of ways through the activism that they waged in the late 50s and onward into the 60s. So I think that the most important effect that it had was kind of that catalyzing impact that it had on a lot of people to become active.

JS: I want to get to just briefly the sections of your book where you talk about the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton. But before we do that, by the mid 60s, you write that “the Chicago police department was supported politically by members of both major parties, was flush with cash and possessed extraordinary power and autonomy.” How did the Chicago police department ultimately gain and grow its political power, which endures to this day, starting in the mid-60s.

SB: Well, it’s a bit of a complicated question but the answer, in a lot of ways, comes back, I think, to a general acknowledgement by white people in positions of power essentially seeing that the police were going to be an effective form of racial control and deeming that a worthwhile project. So, what I mean by that is that there’s all of this momentum in the 1960s to really lobby for increasing police power. So the police department in most of the 1960s is overseen by a guy named Orlando WIlson and Wilson is one of the most esteemed criminal justice minds when he’s hired as the superintendent of the CPD. He’s actually brought in in the wake of this enormous corruption scandal in late 1959 that makes headlines in the 1960s where Richard Daley is forced to fire his police superintendent and bring in someone who can fix the department. But what Wilson does is he modernizes and professionalizes the department, but he also makes pretty explicit the ways in which the police are going to be instruments of racial control. And it’s interesting because he’s held up as a racial liberal, and by all accounts in terms of his public comments and things like that, he appears to have been somewhat liberal, I guess. But, there’s a really striking document that I found in his papers, which are housed at Berkeley where he makes a very explicit argument for an increased budgetary allotment for the police department so that they can hire more people based solely and explicitly on the fact that Chicago is getting Blacker. So essentially, they use predictive modeling of population growth to say, “Look, Chicago is going to get X percentage more young Black people coming into the city for the remainder of the 1960s and so we need an equivalent budgetary increase to hire more police officers.” And it’s an argument that works spectacularly. By that moment in time, someone like Orlando Wilson can tell public officials to jump and they’ll just say “how high?” I think that is in a lot of ways because there is a broad recognition that by that point in time, in the 1960s, the police department generally speaking is an institution whose attentions are focused overwhelmingly on controlling Black people and Black spaces. And by that time, white people just sort of assume that that is the legitimate reason for the police to exist. The police, by that point in time, are really, in a lot of ways, just deciding to no longer operate much in white communities. By this moment in time, white arrest rates are declining quite rapidly. And that remains true until this day. I mean it’s statistically extraordinarily difficult to get arrested while white in Chicago now. And it’s during that moment in time where police repressions and police attentions are focusing increasingly and overwhelmingly on Black parts of the city. And so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that is when the budgetary allotments begin to explode because that’s seen as a legitimate police function.

JS: And in the midst of this scene that you’re describing, you have the emergence of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Talk about their efforts to curb violence in their community, but also to confront the Chicago Police Department and it ultimately culminates with the assassination of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December of 69. But talk about the rise of the Black Panthers and the response of the Chicago police and power structure during the 60s.

SB: The Panthers are famously founded in the Bay Area in ’66, and they’re late in coming to Chicago actually. It’s not until 1968 that there’s a formally chartered chapter there of the Panthers. But during the year or so when they were really, really politically active in Chicago, really just saw some extraordinary achievements on their part. I mean the Panthers are really misunderstood in American history. And Chicago is sort of a classic example of what they did. When we’re talking about curbing violence in the community, what the Panthers were really concerned about was curbing structural violence. So, through the implementation of things like a free breakfast for children program in Chicago, free community health clinic for people whose health needs were not being met, free programs to bus family members to visit incarcerated loved ones down state. I mean these are all programs that the Panthers in Chicago put into effect with pretty remarkable success. And they were also really concerned with building cross-racial alliances and solidarities with other organizations. So this included working with white organizations, with Puerto Rican organizations, to really try to identify common points of structural oppression and violence and try to figure out ways to mitigate them. This included things like police violence and police brutality, of course.

When the Panthers are organizing alongside comrades from other organizations, in 1969 particularly, the level of state repression that is visited upon these efforts is overwhelming. The assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark is really the culmination of a year long violent campaign that the Chicago Police Department, with the assistance of the FBI, waged against the Panthers. The Panthers’ headquarters are frequently raided; supplies that they’ve acquired to feed kids in the free breakfast for children program are burned by the police. And it’s just a period of increasing hostility and aggression and violence that the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are sort of the culminating point of. And the murder of Fred Hampton, especially, who was widely identified as one of the most promising political organizers not just in Chicago but in the country. And he’s only 21 years old when he’s assassinated. But it’s a tragedy for a lot of different reasons. It’s not primarily a tragedy politically, but the political components of the tragedy really are couched in the fact that the things that he was able to do were really seeing some significant successes in the city. And the Panthers, in a lot of ways, are gutted by the assassination of Fred Hampton. I want to be clear, though, that the story of the Black Panthers in Chicago doesn’t completely end with the assassination of Fred Hampton. And again, the reason I want to be careful about that is I think that there’s important stories and lessons about the aftermath of his assassination that have relevance for right now. So in the wake of his assassination, there are dozens of organizations that are founded across the city, inspired by his memory, to really try to confront police brutality as it exists, primarily in Black and brown communities. And the Panthers continue to be parts of those efforts and I think the most important initiative that came out of that was, in the early 70s, what’s left of the Black Panther Party in Chicago organizes a citywide coalition to fight for community control of the police.

And what community control of the police looked like has a whole variety of different components, but part of it was exactly what it sounds like in terms of not necessarily abolishing the police, but radically reimagining the police, decentralizing the police and essentially neighborhoods having control over what policing looked liked within their particular neighborhoods. But I think that the really important component to what community control looked like in the eyes of that coalition is what we would today identify as defunding the police. So again, they’re not calling for outright abolition of police, but they are saying, at that point in time, the Chicago Police Department’s budget  had grown to over $300 million a year — it’s now $1.7 billion a year — so when they looked at that $300 million budget line for the Chicago police, part of what they were calling for with community control was to take a significant portion of that investment in the police and putting it into other things. Putting it into schools, putting it into job training, putting it into community health, and so on and so forth. So when people today talk about defunding the police as being this entirely new concept without historical precedent, it’s not true. I mean the specific nomenclature may be new, but it’s actually an idea that is at least half a century old.

JS: Finally, Simon, from all the scholarship that you’ve done, deeply looking at the history of the Chicago police, primarily up to 1970, what are the big takeaways from your research that you can share with people to understand the way that current police forces operate and their relationship with Black people, Black property, Black communities?

SB: So, I think that there are a number of important takeaways. I think that the first one that people should be thinking about is that the fundamental premise that the police exist and the police were brought into existence to “protect us” or keep us safe, that’s a myth. The police in Chicago and elsewhere were first put into place in order to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchies. And so, when we think about the ways in which police forces currently operate, if we know that as the founding story of police, I think that the way that they operate makes a whole lot more sense. Because they’re essentially continuing to do now what they were founded to do, which is to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchy. And so I think that’s the first big takeaway. The second big takeaway is that when we think about the problems of policing and why policing doesn’t work, at least doesn’t work the way people like to think it does, when we look at how Black communities like Chicago’s experience policing, it’s a two-sided story. So on the one hand, it’s a story of being overpoliced, of being subject to constant harassment, constant surveillance, constant violence, including torture. All of that happens while, at the same time, Black communities do not actually experience much in the way of supposed public safety. So when we think about communities that are the most subject to intercommunal violence, the communities that are the least safe, they’re also the communities that are also the most overpoliced. And so it raises the question of: What’s the point? And people like Trump and others enjoy looking at Chicago’s gun violence and saying, “Well, look at that gun violence. This is why we need police.” But actually, when we look at Chicago’s gun violence and the long history of it, the fact [is] that the Chicago Police Department almost never is able to arrest people who commit homicides. The clearance rate for homicides in Chicago is below 20 percent. Really what the story is is that policing doesn’t work. That if this gun violence is so relentless and so untethered to actual police presences, it’s actually a total refutation of the idea that policing works. So that’s the second big takeaway that I would say — and, if I’m just going to do a list of three, I would just say that people who are out in the streets or who are sympathetic to calls to defund and abolish, I think it’s important to understand that we are part of a long lineage of people who have struggled with and rejected the legitimacy of police power as it exists and as it is visited upon communities of color in the United States. That people who are out in the streets right now calling for defunding and abolition, or people who are contributing financially to those causes and things like that, it’s part of a tradition of protest against police violence that has been going on for longer than any of us have been alive.

JS: Well, I have to say, this is, this is an extraordinary piece of work that you have assembled here and I really hope that people pick up this book. And while it is published by an academic press, it is remarkably accessible and that’s to your credit. Simon Balto, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.

The post Occupied Territory: Why Chicago’s History Matters for Today’s Demands to Defund Police appeared first on The Intercept.

As Coronavirus Surges in ICE Detention, a Message in the Skies Says “RELEASE”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/07/2020 - 8:00pm in



Clustered among the landmarks of downtown Los Angeles are an awful lot of buildings dedicated to imprisoning people. The Twin Towers, which claims the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest jail, sits next to Men’s Central, and nearby there’s the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility, as well as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office and the immigration courts.

Yesterday afternoon, a constellation of words appeared above these edifices, visible for miles around the city. “CARE NOT CAGES,” “CHINGA TU MIGRA,” “ABOLITION NOW,” and other phrases emerged in a circle behind a fleet of planes. The skywriting was part of a nationwide artist intervention entitled “In Plain Sight,” designed to draw attention to the hundreds of places in communities across the country where immigrants and others are detained each day. More messages will show up over different sites today and tomorrow.

Above Los Angeles, the planes were behind schedule. Earlier in the day, members of local immigrant rights groups gathered with artist Beatriz Cortez on the edge of MacArthur Park to chalk “DEFUND ICE” in candy colors in the middle of a street. A marimba band played, the day grew hot, and eventually most everyone went home to wait to see Cortez’s own phrase, “NO CAGES NO JAULAS,” suspended over the immigration court downtown.

Political messages in the sky seem as natural as a sunny day in Los Angeles right now; when I went to the beach for the first time in months in early June, a little plane buzzed over, dragging a banner declaring “Black Lives Matter.” Since the killing of George Floyd, all-caps slogans protesting police violence and affirming Black lives are everywhere: in windows, taped to windshields, spray-painted on toppled statues, embroidered onto face masks, hung on sheets dangled from overpasses. Of course this kind of mushrooming is typical at heated moments of protest, but the signs have a different resonance now, at a time when we are muted by our masks, kept indoors by the virus. They become a way of saying: I am there with you (a message just as quickly co-opted by mayors authorizing murals and brands commissioning artwork for their boarded-up shop windows).

“To stand in solidarity with folks who were saying they want to abolish ICE meant that we also had to engage with the history of violence and incarceration in the U.S.”

In that way, “In Plain Sight” fits right into the moment, and in-person gatherings like Cortez’s highlight, as she put it, “the Central American groups that have been fighting for these things for 40 years.”

“Rather than being an artwork about immigration, this is an artwork that seeks to serve and amplify the on-the-ground work that’s been done by our partner organizations,” said Cassils, who founded the project along with another Los Angeles based artist, rafa esparza. “In Plain Sight” was born out of a group text with artists who had been making work to protest the separation of families at the border and other abuses, but the idea to use skywriting came when Cassils had just returned from Europe and saw a plane spell out “Happy 4th” last July, a sight that evoked for them a “militaristic display of patriotism.”

“What would it be like,” they said, “to usurp and reclaim this idea of what is it to be patriotic on the 4th of July, in this country, in this moment?”

The vaporous letters of skywriting, at once ephemeral and numinous and pleasantly kitschy, have appealed to artists for decades, though the expense makes its use fairly rare. (Technically, what “In Plain Sight” uses is not skywriting — one plane looping around to make alphabet shapes — but skytyping, in which several planes fly in formation, guided by a computer to puff out digital dots in the form of letters.)

The technique has been used for advertising since the 1920s, and was popularized by brands like Pepsi, which had its own fleet of whirling messengers. But Instagram has made skywriting exponentially more valuable, since the temporary display lives on in every passerby’s post, and the press materials for “In Plain Sight” stressed its ’grammable nature; like much public art, the project merges commercial tactics with artistic intent in the name of raising awareness. Cassils had been doing some work for Puma, and was struck by the enormous amount of money that went toward a single ad campaign for shoes.

“As performance artists, we’re dealing with very little means,” they said. “But after seeing the audacity of the money spent on shoes, and learning abut the insanity of the problem [of immigration detention] and the scope and scale, we thought, we need to make this big. We approached the skytyping corporation here in LA and we asked them, ‘What’s the biggest gig you’ve ever done?’ and they said, ‘Well, we’ve done a nationwide campaign of 80 messages nationwide, for Geico.’ So we decided we would go for that.”

The often mysterious phrases that emanate from the tails of the planes are followed by the hashtag #xmap, directing people to a website showing the hundreds of immigration detention facilities across the country and offering connections to local immigrant rights and other groups organizing to end detention.

“To stand in solidarity with folks who were saying they want to abolish ICE meant that we also had to engage with the history of violence and incarceration in the U.S.,” said esparza. That meant inviting messages from Black and Indigenous artists and activists, as well as Japanese American artists whose relatives had been in internment camps in World War II. After George Floyd’s murder, he said, “to stand in solidarity with the movement for Black lives, I wouldn’t call it a pivot, we just always had it.”

Some of the messages are purposefully enigmatic or elegiac, like the name of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, the first person to die of Covid-19 in immigration custody, chosen by Dread Scott to be flown over the Statue of Liberty, while over the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, another artist will write Mejia’s sister’s words about his death: “My pain is so big.” Esparza collaborated with Tijuana-based artists for three messages in Spanish near the border: NO TE RINDAS (“Don’t give up”); LA FRONTERA NOS CRUZO (“The border crossed us”); and SOY NUBE DE ESPERANZA (“I am a cloud of hope”).

Others are crystal clear: the many variations on “Abolish ICE,” or “YER TAX $ CAGE KIDS” over the San Diego ICE field office.

That urgency is needed. Over 22,800 people are currently in ICE custody. While that’s many thousands less than it was before the coronavirus struck — in 2019, the average daily detained population was about 50,000 — in many cases, it’s taken lawsuits to force the agency to free people. Just last week, a judge ordered the government to release children who had been held for weeks with their parents.

“The family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures,” the judge wrote.

Fear ripped through immigrant detention centers as the virus spread, with people inside desperately protesting unsanitary and crowded conditions and lack of medical attention. Guards met protests with retaliation, including pepper-spray, solitary confinement, and transfers to different facilities. Recently, cases in ICE detention have jumped — a facility in Eloy, Arizona, owned and operated by the private contractor CoreCivic, reported 222 confirmed infections last week. The message over Eloy? A single word: “RELEASE.”

The post As Coronavirus Surges in ICE Detention, a Message in the Skies Says “RELEASE” appeared first on The Intercept.

What is Behind the Ghislaine Maxwell Arrest?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/07/2020 - 1:03am in


Politics, Justice

(Photo credit:  Christopher Penler/Shutterstock.com) Yesterday Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested. Epstein was a super-shady socialite and convicted sex...

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How the Coronavirus Became a Death Sentence at a GEO Group Halfway House

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/07/2020 - 9:00pm in



In the first video, which is blurry and just 20 seconds long, a woman in a mask walks into a men’s dorm at the Leidel Comprehensive Sanction Center, a federal halfway house in Houston, Texas, run by GEO Group. She orders everyone to clear the area. “Turn those phones off,” she says.

In the next clip, taken moments later, a man is wheeled down the hallway on a stretcher, wearing a red T-shirt, jeans, and an oxygen mask. The person pushing him wears a surgical gown, followed closely by black-clad security officers.

The man on the stretcher is Oaka Adams, 43. He arrived at the halfway house in January after a stint in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute oxycodone. By the time he started feeling seriously sick in mid-June, the coronavirus had already killed two of his neighbors at the halfway house. Another died shortly after he got home.

Adams was afraid he would be next. Although he had not been tested for the coronavirus, he felt feverish and struggled to breathe. Adams got in touch with a friend outside the halfway house, who called 911 around noon on Friday, June 19. At St. Joseph Medical Center, an X-ray showed all the signs of Covid-19. By 3 p.m., the director of the Leidel Center, Johnathan Hardy, had left work for the day, but he would later tell a case manager that Adams would probably not be allowed to go home from the hospital. Instead he would be discharged back to the halfway house. “I’m so upset,” Adams’s friend texted that evening. “This system is screwed up big time.”

Adams spent the weekend at St. Joseph. By the following Monday, his condition had improved. “He can sit up and talk now, and his breathing is better,” his friend reported. Soon afterward, he was released to home confinement. Back at the halfway house, word from residents was that they were planning to test everyone for the coronavirus. But a week later, that still hadn’t happened. On June 29, Hardy issued an all-staff memo, which was posted inside the building. “Be advised that the city of Houston COVID testing team has changed the date for on-site testing,” the piece of paper read. Where the new date had been written — July 6, 2020 — someone crossed it out and wrote, “NEVER.”

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons counts seven total cases of Covid-19 at the Leidel Center, including two deaths. But current and former residents — who spoke and shared videos and photographs on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation — say the situation is far more dire. They say the virus has run rampant among residents and staff alike. They point to a third man who died of Covid-19 last month, shortly after leaving the Leidel Center. And they say that the facility has repeatedly refused to provide testing, leaving residents to seek out tests on their own, while sharing no information about those who have died. “Do you know how I found out about the first death — even the first sickness?” one former resident told The Intercept. “From a staff member gossiping with an inmate. And the inmate came back and told us. We’re like, ‘Are you serious?’”

GEO Group has previously declined to comment on the impact of the pandemic at its residential reentry centers, including an earlier death at a halfway house in New York. But in a July 2 email, GEO Care Vice President for Communications Monica Hook acknowledged two of the Houston deaths. “We are aware of two Leidel Center residents that were sent to the hospital and subsequently passed away,” she wrote. She also said that while some GEO Group halfway houses have arranged for onsite testing, “the majority of our RRCs coordinate resident healthcare through community providers.” At Leidel, “we have been referring residents to local health department testing sites.”

Hook provided a fact sheet describing the measures being taken by GEO Group to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at its facilities, including special sterilization of high-contact areas, “above and beyond normal cleaning activities at RRCs.” But multiple residents have told The Intercept that it is up to them to clean the dorms and other areas at the halfway house. They also reject the notion that they have access to adequate medical attention — or even food. In a video sent to The Intercept earlier this week, a resident showed a meal consisting of two slices of white bread, a packet of mayonnaise, Goldfish crackers, and a cookie.

The spread of the virus at the Leidel Center is emblematic of the unique risks posed to halfway houses throughout the pandemic. Residents arrive from prisons across the country, then share rooms, bathrooms, and dining areas. Staff come in and out of the surrounding community, as do residents who are required to work. Since The Intercept began covering federal halfway houses in April, the number of affected facilities has continued to climb. In late May, the BOP documented 230 total Covid-19 cases across 42 RRCs. Just over a month later, the BOP shows 301 total cases across 57 RRCs.

These numbers are a small fraction of the thousands of cases across the federal prison system. But they also represent a a significant undercount. Not only do these figures fluctuate from facility to facility without explanation, the official tally only includes people who are in BOP custody, leaving out halfway house residents who are in the hands of other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Probation Office. It also leaves out RRC staff, who are not technically bureau employees but rather work for halfway house providers. Of the 57 affected federal halfway houses currently listed on the BOP website, there is not a single documented case of staff infected with Covid-19.

With 195 RRCs run by a patchwork of providers — about a third of which are for-profits — the network of halfway houses with BOP contracts lacks transparency even under normal circumstances. While the BOP has issued press releases about Covid-19 deaths inside its prisons — providing names, ages, and facilities where the deceased were held — it has released no information about those who have died inside federal halfway houses. The only public acknowledgment of the fatalities are the numbers listed in the “Inmate Death” column on the BOP website.

Of the six documented deaths at federal RRCs recorded by the BOP to date, three were residents of GEO Group facilities — and two were residents at the Leidel Center. Until now, the identities of the men who died after becoming ill at the Houston halfway house have remained unknown beyond their families and the facility. But former and current residents of the Leidel Center shared their names with The Intercept. The oldest was 60 years old, the youngest 46. All three had gone to prison on probation violations or drug charges. And all of them had families who were preparing to welcome them home in the coming days. Instead, those families are planning memorial services.


Leidel Center at Houston, Texas.

Screenshot: Google Map

I Do Not Want to Die in the Halfway House

The Leidel Center is located in the heart of downtown Houston, just steps from the freeway and Minute Maid Park, the home stadium for the Houston Astros. There is an outdoor area with picnic tables and benches dubbed Logan’s Garden. The facility sleeps some 190 people, a majority men but some women, most of who are serving the last days of their federal sentences.

In operation since the 1990s, the Leidel Center was previously run by Cornell Corrections, which was acquired by GEO Group in 2010. The private prison company’s expansion into reentry services has become a growing part of the its business plan. Today, the Leidel Center is one of 45 halfway houses under GEO Group’s Continuum of Care division, which sells everything from reentry to drug treatment to counseling services to state and federal government. Fifteen of GEO’s halfway houses have contracts with the BOP.

GEO Group has long been accused of mistreating those in its care. In Houston, a 2019 lawsuit described how the company abandoned residents of a different halfway house during Hurricane Harvey, leaving them in a flooded facility without food, clean water, or medical care. When the coronavirus crisis began, residents soon began detailing similar neglect at different GEO Group facilities, even as corporate executives boasted about the company’s response to shareholders. Residents at an Oakland, California, halfway house told The Intercept that the facility had tried to keep its positive cases a secret. And at the Grossman Center in Leavenworth, Kansas, where coronavirus spread out of control this spring, numerous residents said that the facility’s attempts to contain the outbreak only made things worse.

Residents of the Leidel Center describe similar chaos and mismanagement. One resident who arrived at the halfway house in February said that nothing had been done to adapt to the looming crisis. “They were not prepared,” he said. “They had no clue the storm was coming.” Once it hit, the resident said, “they sat on their haunches.” While other halfway houses stopped sending people to work except for those in essential services, in accordance with BOP instructions, this did not happen at Leidel. “If you had a job, you could go,” a former resident said. “And that was everybody. Didn’t matter what what kind of work you did.” Yet another resident recalled being disturbed at the sight of a staffer inspecting the belongings of a member of the women’s dorm in May. The employee was not wearing a mask or gloves. “Like, I understand you have to go through our things, that’s fine,” the resident said. “But we are also in the middle of a pandemic.”

At one point, the former resident said, “they started putting signs on the floor saying, ‘Keep your distance,’ you know, ‘Six feet’ and stuff like that. But it’s impossible. This is a halfway house. … Our beds are so close to each other … it’s impossible to stay six feet away from anybody in that place.”

On May 22, a pair of Leidel residents posted a video online. One man wore a hoodie and a paper towel around his nose and mouth. The other wore a bandana as a mask. “We are reporting that the coronavirus is here,”  the man in the hoodie said. “The entire facility has been exposed, and they’re not doing anything about it. They’re attempting to cover it up.” The man said that he had tried to contact everyone from Sheila Jackson Lee to Donald Trump, to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who issued Houston’s stay-at-home order in March. “We just need someone to look into this,” he said. “I do not want to die in the halfway house.” Just over a week later, on May 31, the first Leidel Center resident died.

“The entire facility has been exposed, and they’re not doing anything about it. They’re attempting to cover it up.”

The man was 56-year-old Roger Rust. Like the man in the video, he lived in C dorm, home to some 80 residents and considered the worst housing area at Leidel. “He would be up all night just coughing and coughing and hacking and coughing,” the man in the video told The Intercept. Multiple residents said he used a walker. “There was no way that man even should have been in there, and they still kept him in there,” the former resident said.

Two weeks later, a second man died. His name was Michael McLarty. He used to sit in the front of the building before heading to work, where other residents would often chat with him. “Real sweet, oh my gosh, really nice man,” the former resident said. One day in early June, she recalled, “I said, ‘You’re not looking too good.’ He said ‘I know.’ I said, ‘You need to keep your face mask on at all times.’ … I didn’t know that was the last time I’d ever talk to him.”

Looking at his LinkedIn page for the first time, she recognized the photo McLarty used; he’d taken it at the halfway house in that same spot where he always used to sit. The photo is striking for McLarty’s huge handlebar mustache and ruddy sunburned complexion. “We didn’t get that much sun where we were incarcerated,” said another resident, a man who knew McLarty before they both arrived at the halfway house. “So me and him did a lot of sunbathing out there.” The last text message the resident received from McLarty was when he was at the hospital. “I’m sick as a dog,” he said.

The same day that McLarty died, on June 14, a man who had recently left the halfway house died in Conroe, Texas. Cedric Oliphant, 46, a Huntsville native, had been in his last days of a nine-month sentence on a probation violation. Like McLarty’s family, Oliphant’s relatives declined to speak publicly about his death. But a close friend said that Oliphant went to the doctor in Huntsville on June 4, then tested positive for Covid-19 on June 5, the day he was released from BOP custody. “He was alert enough to call and send a text about being put in a medicated coma and how this may be his end,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “Then next thing nurse called he was gone.”

Why Couldn’t He Have Been on Home Confinement?

For months, families of people in the federal prison system have said they are kept in the dark about the handling of the pandemic. People in BOP custody have especially struggled to get answers about why they have not been allowed to do their remaining time in home confinement, particularly in light of the danger posed by coronavirus to crowded facilities. Although the BOP claimed to have ramped up home confinement in the early months of the pandemic, for many this has proven to be a false promise.

Halfway house residents would seem to be ideal candidates for home confinement, given that they are at the end of their sentences. Yet residents at Leidel and other facilities say their requests for home confinement have been repeatedly denied. In one typical account, the aunt of a woman currently at Leidel told The Intercept that her niece remains at the halfway house despite the fact that her home confinement date has already passed. As a nurse in Houston, she is alarmed that GEO Group is putting the entire community at risk. “I know what it is like in the hospitals,” she said. “Our numbers are going up and up.”

Families of the men who have died at Leidel describe a total lack of communication by the director and staff, even when their loved ones passed. Oliphant’s family declined to speak publicly in large part because they had so few answers about his illness. Although McLarty’s widow did not respond to a phone message, a number of residents said they have spoken to her in the wake of her husband’s death. “She’s pissed,” one resident said. “Because why couldn’t he have been on home confinement?” According to that resident, he would have been eligible in May.

In a phone call with The Intercept, the family of Roger Rust described a clueless and counterproductive response to his illness. Rust’s son, Austin, said that his father had already been hospitalized once while living at the Leidel Center, weeks before being diagnosed with Covid-19. Rust had been using an inhaler to ward off attacks that his son described as a combination of asthma and anxiety. After he had such an episode in April, “the hospital kind of put it off like an asthma attack and then sent him right back. It was like one day and then … he was back at the halfway house.”


Roger Rust with his son Austin at their home in Azle, TX around 1993.

Photo: Courtesy of the family

Austin Rust said his father was a devoted family man when he was growing up. “He was the baseball coach. He was, you know, the all-American dad that did anything for his kids,” he said. After Roger Rust and his wife divorced, however, “he kind of went crazy.” Although his son did not discuss specifics, Rust developed a drug problem that led to his arrest on federal charges.

According to court records, Rust was arrested on March 6, 2016 after he was stopped at a Texas Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 281, just north of the Mexican border. He was driving a truck pulling a horse trailer, which was subsequently searched by Border Patrol agents. Four men were discovered hiding in the trailer. A small amount of cocaine and methamphetamine was found in Rust’s glove compartment.

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Allison Ramos, a Corpus Cristi defense attorney, represented Rust in the case. She was saddened at the news of his death, describing him as different from other clients she has defended on similar smuggling charges, in part because he was not callous toward the men he had been caught transporting. “I liked him. He was probably one of my top five clients. … He was really nice, respectful.” To Ramos, it was clear that his crime was rooted in a drug problem. “He just needed money and he agreed to transport people. … You could just tell he had a drug issue and he succumbed to it.”

Rust pleaded guilty to alien smuggling and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison — a relatively short sentence given the charge — plus another six months on supervised release. Just months after getting out of prison in 2018, however, he was rearrested and jailed on new drug charges. Although much of the sentencing information is sealed, a letter to the court from his daughter-in-law suggested that Rust had wanted to return to North Texas after his initial imprisonment but was unable to because of the conditions of his release. “He truly wants to be an excellent grandfather and father to his son,” she wrote in February 2019. “We just want him to come stay near us where we can help him get on his feet.”

Austin Rust never understood why his father had to be released from prison so far from home. His whole family and support system lived in North Texas, just outside Fort Worth. If he had been allowed on home confinement, he would have had plenty of places to go. “I mean, I bought a travel trailer and I was gonna put him up in a little park down the road,” he said. “I just felt like, things were about to get back where I had my dad close again.”

Their father had died at 11:45 p.m. Two days later, the case worker called asking for an update. “Can you please find out what’s going on with him and call me back?”

Rust also does not understand why, at the very least, his father could not have been tested for the coronavirus at the hospital the first time he went. “Maybe this would have come out different,” he said. Instead, just a couple weeks after his return to Leidel, his father called to say that he was back at the hospital. By the time his coronavirus test came back positive, he was going rapidly downhill. “It was to the point where whenever we called, you know, you couldn’t even talk to him,” Rust said. When he tried to hold a conversation, “he would just be coughing and wheezing and just having a horrible time.” Their phone calls became short check-ins: “Like, you know, ‘I was just thinking about you, I love you, don’t strain yourself.’”

Then one day, Rust could not reach his father at all. He had been placed on a ventilator. From then on, Rust got all his information from a nurse at the hospital. At no point did the halfway house attempt to inform the family, he said. Instead it was the other way around. Rust got a phone call from his father’s case manager after he was placed on a ventilator. “She said … ‘I’ve been trying to get ahold of him and he’s supposed to be calling me from the hospital. And I haven’t heard from him for three or four days.’” Rust replied that his father was in critical condition. The case manager asked him to keep her posted.

It was just before midnight on May 31 when Rust got a phone call from his sister. Their father had died at 11:45 p.m. Two days later, the same case worker called asking for an update on his father. “Can you please find out what’s going on with him and call me back?” he remembered her asking.

Seeking answers about the situation at the halfway house, Rust got in touch with his father’s old bunkmate, who sent him a text on June 2. “I’m sorry to hear what happened,” he wrote. “We were roommates. They assumed that we were all infected, but they will not test anyone or separate the sick. I’ve been coughing for the last month, but I’m feeling okay I guess. I just might be one of the people that are asymptomatic. … Everyone in here is scared to death of me and my other roommates. We can’t even taste or smell food. Roger was a good friend. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

The post How the Coronavirus Became a Death Sentence at a GEO Group Halfway House appeared first on The Intercept.