There is a lot of new terminology floating around now in the COVID-19 era, including the term COVID-19, but some of it includes old words being used in new ways.
We’ve written about the irony of cannabis going from “lazy stoners” and lockup to “essential” almost overnight during this pandemic, and the deeper irony that it remains the only “essential” industry to be blackballed from banking, shut out of proper insurance options and denied crucial tax benefits afforded to all other businesses.
So, perhaps the word “essential” does not mean what they think it means…
Another word being tossed around these days is LOCKDOWN. While things will begin to change a bit after April 30th, currently all but nine states have Shelter-at-Home orders in place to help stop the spread of Coronavirus, limiting travel and forcing many non-“essential” businesses to temporarily close. Residents of these states are being told to stay home as much as possible. To a growing number of Americans, this equates to a “lockdown”.
Anyone who has done time behind bars knows that bowling alleys being closed does not rise to the level of lockdown. The fact that you can still go right now to hundreds of retail outlets – including liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries – makes our current situation quite a bit different than the true lockdown conditions that America’s prisoners face, wouldn’t you agree?
For those of us who have not had to face that very real form of lockdown, but who still have enough empathy to realize that our country has a decades-long pandemic of over-incarceration, we choose our words more carefully and focus our frustration on the systemic abuses at the root of our society.
As the death toll from COVID-19 rises over 57,000 here in the United States, some of the deadliest hotspots in the country were, not surprisingly, in our prisons where social/physical distancing is impossible by design.
WALKING THE LINE
Whether you look at total numbers or per capita data, the U.S. and it’s 2,000,000+ prisoners leads the way by far, dwarfing nations like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, all known for ruthlessly jailing journalists, dissenters, and even gay people. The U.S. is atop that list.
Over the past half-century, since President Richard Nixon officially launched his doomed War on Drugs (spoiler alert: the drugs win), the overall population has risen roughly 50% here in the U.S., but thanks in large part to the rise of the for-profit-prison model, our incarcerated population has risen over 600% in that same timeframe.
There is a direct correlation between the core reasons (income inequality and race) why the United States leads the world in both prison population and in Coronavirus cases and deaths, despite the fact that we do not have nearly as large a population as some other countries.
That is a deeper article for another day, but the two schisms have collided of late to the point where the Attorney General of the United States issued a letter in early April to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to “immediately maximize” the release of prisoners to home confinement. Per the Attorney General’s order, priority was to be given to medically vulnerable prisoners, particularly those in prisons that had a rise in COVID-19 cases or deaths.
On paper, it sounds like a humane solution to a massive problem but of course, the government is blowing it and the individual power-brokers running each prison know that the incarceration dollar is a good dollar and empty beds don’t pay the bills.
To date, just over 1,000 federal prisoners have been released under this order – just 173,000+ to go! Then there are the state prisons and jails where the bulk of our incarcerated population resides.
When you wind up behind bars, the facilities are most often segregated by levels that indicate the severity of the crimes committed by the inmates on each level. Still, you can find yourself in prison for some pretty petty shit and be confined with cold-blooded killers.
There is a big difference, though, between a life sentence and a death sentence. Or, at least there should be, but the lack of action to protect our prisoners from COVID-19 has blurred that line to the point where everyone behind bars is at risk of being condemned to death, regardless of how ridiculous their charges may be.
One such story that we have kept a close eye on for years, and even more so now during the pandemic, is that of Craig Cesal, currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In fact, the entire concept of “parole” was abolished from the Federal prison system in August of 1987.
Cesal was a truck mechanic who got caught up in a federal investigation involving the trafficking of god-knows-how-much weed. He just so happened to fix the trucks used by a company involved in the illegal cannabis operation and for that role alone, he was roped in as a suspect and eventually as a defendant.
With no prior felonies and no shady ties to any of the other defendants, Cesal fought his charges. The other eight people indicted ultimately received anywhere from 5-11 years after agreeing to various levels of cooperation, but Cesal’s insistence of his own innocence earned him no leniency but instead a life sentence that he has been serving since 2002.
Again, he wasn’t selling weed. He wasn’t smoking weed. The trap-truck that the cops tricked him into recovering didn’t even have any weed in it at the time – they had already seized it. When he was speaking by phone to the undercover agent to get the location of the supposedly abandoned truck, Cesal reiterated that he was just a tow truck driver and was not affiliated with the company that owned the target vehicle. Still, the judge threw the book at him and he’s been serving his time ever since.
Now 60 years old, Craig Cesal is also an insulin-dependent diabetic, a disability that has been and continues to be used against him in an attempt to silence his reports of ongoing staff abuse against himself and his fellow inmates at FCI Terre Haute in Indiana.
He has been repeatedly denied access to the law library on the prison grounds due, he’s been told, to some phantom rule that no diabetics are allowed inside. This library is his only source of education in his daily quest to earn his freedom, but the powers that be in this federal prison are making him choose between that possibility and his own health.
The final straw for us was when we learned from our friend Cheri Sicard, Cesal’s heaven-sent and most vocal advocate here on the outside, that Craig was approved to be released from the prison and remitted into home confinement due to his compromised health and the unsafe conditions at FCI Terre Haute, but then the warden himself stepped in and denied the transfer due to what he saw as insubordination every time Craig filed a complaint against prison staff.
That might sound like some movie villain shit, and it is, but it is all too real, and sadly this sort of injustice plays out every day in every jail and prison in this country.
Craig’s appeals and habeas petitions have all been exhausted and as mentioned, he was not given a parole date. He will die in prison unless his sentence is commuted by the President of the United States, or is otherwise wiped out by wide-sweeping cannabis and/or criminal justice reform.
We need to scream until they are all free.
To her eternal credit, Cheri Sicard has been screaming. “Myself and all of Craig’s supporters are just sick that the warden at FCI Terre Haute is choosing to let his personal feelings and the attempted cover-up of abuse to come in the way of a deserving prisoner’s release,” Sicard recently told us.
“Craig is not now, nor has he ever been, a danger to society,” she continued, “He was a first time offender given a life sentence for a marijuana conspiracy. There was no violence in his case. He is a senior with bad lungs and diabetes and the Bureau of Prisons approved him to go home. He should go home.”
You can read more details of Craig’s arrest and trial at Cheri’s website HERE, and you should.
Further, you can read over a year’s worth of email correspondence between Cheri and Craig HERE, outlining in infuriating detail the sort of abuse that he was witnessing and experiencing himself.
One way that you can help from right at home is by writing a respectful note to Attorney General William Barr asking him to look into the situation and send Craig Cesal #52948-019 to home confinement. Send your support for Craig Cesal HERE.
You can also join over 322k compassionate people who have so far signed the Change.org petition organized by Craig’s daughter Lauren, urging the President to commute his sentence and send him home.
Craig loves getting cards and letters.
Write to him here:
Craig Cesal #52948-019
FCI Terre Haute
PO Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808
Oh, and the rest of us can STFU about “lockdown”, yeah?