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The New American Death Sentence

Police are making low-level arrests even as public health experts have called for immediate decarceration to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Worldwide, New York’s jail complex at Rikers Island has the highest rate of cases of the novel coronavirus—as of April 8, 287 in total. That’s 6.65 percent of people jailed there. Two people have died. The New York Times counts 1,324 cases among people jailed in prisons and jails across the country, while acknowledging this is likely an undercount.

“Quick action is necessary for three reasons,” wrote Peter Wagner and Emily Widra at the Prison Policy Initiative. “Correctional staff and incarcerated populations are already testing positive, the justice-involved population disproportionately has health conditions that make them more vulnerable, and the staffing resources required to make policy changes will be depleted long before the pandemic peaks.”

Rather than take action, officials have dug in, passing executive orders criminalizing people for violating social distancing guidelines. Police arrest people for allegedly threatening to transmit the virus. Some of those arrested have faced high bond, remaining in crowded jails unable to pay.

Given what we know about the spread of the virus in prisons and jails, incarcerating someone right now can be tantamount to intentionally exposing them. To leave them there is a possible death sentence.

“Woman Charged With Terrorist Threat After Coughing on $35,000 Worth of Groceries”

A Pennsylvania woman was charged on March 25, HuffPost reported, with “felony counts of terrorist threats, threats to use a ‘biological agent,’ and criminal mischief, as well as misdemeanor counts [of] criminal attempt to commit retail theft and disorderly conduct.” Police said her bail was set at $50,000 and failing to pay it, she was being held in a county jail awaiting trial.

“Authorities: A Charles Co. man threw 2 parties amid the coronavirus outbreak. Now he’s in jail, held without bond.”

On March 28, a man throwing a party was the first to be arrested in Maryland for violating a state executive order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. He was held in jail without bond, The Baltimore Sun reported. “The maximum penalties for violating the order are a $5,000 fine and up to a year in prison.”

“New Orleans police are jailing people for minor offenses even as the city becomes a Covid-19 hotspot”

Among those charged, as The Washington Post reported on March 31, based on police accounts in court documents, “One man was accused of stealing whiskey from a drugstore. A homeless man had allegedly refused to leave a hotel lobby. A woman had walked out of a grocery store without paying for a cart full of food worth $375.”

“Orlando police arrest homeless man who violated curfew, affidavit says”

Police say they asked the man if he was headed to work, The Orlando Sentinel reported. “He was taken to the Orange County Jail, where he was booked about 7 a.m. Sunday on a charge of violating an emergency management power curfew.” He was arrested on March 22 and was still held there the following day.

“NYPD Makes Arrests for Social Distance Violations as More Officers Call Out Sick”

As first reported at The Intercept, one woman arrested by police on March 27 for having “failed to maintain social distancing” was held for 36 hours in a cell with two dozen other women. “There was no soap, and the cell was dirty, but at one point an officer went around distributing drops of hand sanitizer to the women held there.” She said the arresting officers were not wearing masks. Later, a law enforcement source told Gothamist that people in the group the woman was with were drinking and “particularly aggressive,” but, as the blog pointed out, “no one was charged with public intoxication, possessing an open container of alcohol, or resisting arrest.”

“[Alaska State Trooper] arrests woman accused of shoplifting, making false claims of coronavirus”

After troopers detained a woman allegedly shoplifting at a grocery store, they say she told them she had tested positive for Covid-19, TV station KTUU reported on March 26. Her arrest “could’ve ended with the woman facing charges of terroristic threats. She rescinded her claim, however, and instead of facing a felony is imprisoned for lesser charges.”

“A Texas woman was arrested for threatening to spread coronavirus, police say”

An 18-year-old woman was arrested on April 7 and charged with making a terroristic threat and a third-degree felony, CNN reported, after police say she threatened to “willfully spread” coronavirus in a Snapchat video. She was transferred to Denton County Jail with a $20,000 bond. Police say she later told them she had tested negative.

“Missouri man arrested for licking items at Walmart in coronavirus video”

Warrenton Police arrested a man after he was seen in a video posted to social media in which he “licked a row of deodorant sticks at Walmart,” radio station KMOX reported. Police released a statement on March 23 saying he had been taken into custody and charges were pending, adding, “We take these complaints very seriously and would like to thank all of those who reported the video so the issue could be addressed.”

“Florida Pastor Arrested After Defying Virus Orders”

The Hillsborough County sheriff said he sought a warrant to arrest a megachurch pastor for “intentionally and repeatedly” defying emergency stay-away orders, The New York Times reported on March 30. “He was booked in jail and freed 40 minutes later after posting a $500 bail. He faces two second-degree misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.”