What—apart from the fact that U.S. prisons are pandemic petri dishes and prisoners’ lives are officially regarded as dispensable—does the colossal, ongoing disaster of our criminal justice system have to do with the current disaster of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout?
You might answer that having the world’s largest prison population (indeed, more than 20 percent of all prisoners on the globe are in the U.S. despite having only 4.25 percent of global population) rhymes with having the world’s largest number of COVID cases (more than 25 percent of worldwide cases), and you would be right. But I’ll give you a hint of the similarity I’m driving at: both embody and perpetuate the culture of punishment, a most persistent and revolting feature of this country’s way of life.
What do I mean by “the culture of punishment?” I mean addiction to prohibition, penalty, and revenge, writ large. For example:
- The school-to-prison pipeline whereby increasingly large numbers of children from stressed neighborhoods and low income families are funneled into the criminal justice system for infractions that when I was in school would have warranted a stern talking-to.
- The punishing impulse loomed particularly large in the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol incited by Trump and his minions. Citing bizarre fantasy crimes allegedly perpetrated by officials, white supremacists and QAnon supporters set out to harm and even murder their enemies in the Senate and House of Representatives. Just one example among many here.
- Yesterday, a mob of anti-vaxxers shut down a vaccination site in Los Angeles, not satisfied with choosing to avoid the vaccine themselves, but needing to punish others for wishing to be vaccinated, thereby greatly increasing risk to the vulnerable.
- The murders by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here have doled out death sentences for sleeping, driving, playing, and merely existing while Black, taking the culture of punishment to extreme heights.
- The movement to defund the police sparked by this official violence and persecution was rooted in a commonsense question: how is it helping to send armed officers to attend to drug-induced trauma, domestic conflict, suicide attempts, homelessness, and other challenges that can best be addressed by medical, emotional, or economic aid? Our addiction to punishment as the universal intervention for personal or civil challenge beggars imagination.
The culture of punishment is conditioned on the fact that to operate such a system, some must be given the status of authorized punishers and others must be seen as punishment’s objects. The two categories seldom overlap. As a consequence, it has been normalized that people should feel outraged over “welfare cheats” who are vilified for obtaining public assistance despite regulations that are supposed to disqualify them; and blithely accept multi-billionaires who pay no taxes, thus depriving public coffers of far more resource that could buy social goods such as healthcare, education, and housing.
All of the examples I have cited express this same understanding of power: the privileged are entitled to punish; everyone else is expected to take their punishment compliantly. It permeates and pollutes our culture, top-to-bottom, from the “Karens” so often captured on video calling the police on innocent people of color for having the temerity to picnic in public or post signs on their own property to the high officials who see no reason not to cage and mistreat children at the border while insisting that their own families are unduly burdened by wearing masks to stop the spread of the pandemic.
Many times, I have posed three questions that deserve far better answers than tend to be forthcoming from the many voices who responded to the violence on January 6 by saying “this is not who we are.”
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
I thought being Incarceration Nation, drowning in violence based on race and gender—that it was these things that would make up the answer to my last question, that sadly, we will be remembered as the planet’s biggest punishers. But the COVID-19 pandemic—the callous way that the lives of poor people, people of color, rural people have been cast aside as acceptable damage—has added another dimension. Let me explain.
Vaccines are scarce for many reasons, but chief among them is the fact that the federal government was MIA during critical months for supporting manufacture, purchasing, and distributing vaccines. In response to that scarcity, the federal government and most states created priority categories for vaccination. Sticking to the categories has been complicated because much of the vaccine must be stored at extremely cold temperatures and used within a short time of thawing. Requiring that the vaccine be reserved only for highest priority categories of recipients has made it extremely challenging to use all of the vaccine within the allotted time.
The results? Tremendous confusion and anxiety, especially in places where gaining access to available vaccines has for the privileged meant calling in a favor, and for others, hours or days on the phone or online, trying to arrange an appointment that may be impossible to find. Many people at high risk have been unable to obtain vaccinations even when there is available supply: they may have limited transportation options to distant vaccination centers, lack free time during the available hours, or simply cannot navigate the system. As of this past weekend, the CDC says that a little more than half of the available vaccine doses have been administered, meaning that about eight percent of U.S. residents have received some vaccine.
The figure alone is appalling, but look beneath the surface and it’s worse. That’s not eight percent of everyone. As Eric Ward has recently written:
Coronavirus mortality rates for Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Pacific Islander communities are more than double that for the white population, when adjusted for age differences. According to a Brookings Institute analysis, the novel coronavirus is now the third leading cause of death for Black Americans.
Ward is writing from Oregon, a majority-white state, where “…36% of Oregon’s COVID-19 cases identify as Hispanic. Despite this, only 2.3% of Hispanics have received a vaccination, compared to 5.1% of white Oregonians. Black Oregonians have a case rate more than two times that of white Oregonians, yet only 4.6% of us have been vaccinated.” And Oregon is by no means the only state whose numbers tell this story.
Op-eds from people who understand public health and epidemiology have been thick on the ground since the turn of the year. Some advocate changes in strategy, such as spreading one dose as widely as possible or conducting mobile vaccinations in at-risk locations far from urban medical facilities. Zeynep Tufekci’s piece in the New York Times seems particularly wise and grounded to me. She wrote in mid-January:
We should focus on speed and access, not on punitive efforts to ensure strict adherence to complicated eligibility rules. Micromanaging the vaccination process to make sure these rules are never departed from is more likely to contribute to slowing us down and wasting vaccines, not to fairness. It’s not our only challenge, but complicated prioritization and bureaucratization of the process is one of the reasons that while nearly 40 million doses have been distributed to states, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, only about 12 million have been administered, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Here’s an article that lays out the precise number of vaccination centers needed to administer a million doses a day, along with their staffing needs and other relevant details, offering a path to speedier and wider vaccination if Congress allocates the needed funds. Congress seems stymied by the battle between those who say we can’t afford to wait—going on half a million deaths, how can we justify the indecency of delaying?—and Republicans who are so appalled at the notion of ordinary citizens receiving $2,000 after nearly a year of anxiety, suffering, and deprivation that they are willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives rather than open their hands.
Punishment has been one of the main instruments authorities have used to address this wicked problem. Around the turn of the year, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York was especially notable, fining and otherwise punishing healthcare providers who obtained vaccines from unauthorized sources and offered it to elderly or ill patients rather than reserving it for healthcare workers and nursing home residents; and then threatening fines for providers who don’t use the vaccine fast enough. After Governor Gavin Newsom threatened healthcare providers with penalties if they didn’t adhere to priority categories of recipients, California’s Medical Board detailed “disciplinary actions,” for providers, “up to and including the revocation of their license and disenrollment from the COVID-19 Vaccination Program.”
Indeed, punishments have already been administered with an eagerness that would have been admirable if only it had been applied instead to ease suffering rather than prolong it. Did you read about this medical center in Georgia that was barred from receiving vaccine for six months after committing the sin of vaccinating teachers?
Many people have called for a paradigm shift in our national culture to address deeply rooted and persistent structural flaws that must be reversed if we hope for a livable future: racism, sexism, climate denial, and more. To that list, please add the culture of punishment, which has created tremendous suffering as it worsens each and every problem it was supposedly designed to fix. A truly humane, equitable, and effective vaccination program would be a good start.
“The Sky Is Crying” by the Slide Brothers.