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Losing a loved one twice: first in prison, then in Covid

Calls usually came on Sundays.

Hank Warner of Huntington Beach, Calif., Saw a familiar area code appear on his phone, telling him his younger brother was on the other end of the line.

He picked up the hook to hear a woman’s voice, asking if Mr. Warner would accept a collect call from San Quentin State Prison, Calif. Then the brothers would have 15 minutes to talk about their lives and, if it was football season, the San Francisco 49ers.

When the calls stopped coming in June, Mr Warner, 59, wondered what had happened. But his prison calls continued to go to the same dead end voicemail.

“I knew from hearing nothing that something was wrong,” he said.

In July, someone from prison called him back to tell him that his brother, Eric Warner, had been hospitalized. Later that month, another call from San Quentin announced the death of Eric, 57, on July 25, after contracting the coronavirus in the outbreak of infections that swept through the prison last year.

For many who have lost someone to Covid-19, grief has been compounded by constant reminders of a pandemic that is still killing people at an record rate. And for those whose loved ones were infected in correctional facilities, the loss has been further complicated by the dehumanizing bureaucracy of incarceration and the stigma surrounding criminal convictions.

Hank Warner cried with mixed feelings for Eric, who had been incarcerated on a manslaughter conviction.

“I know it’s hard for people to sympathize with people who commit the kinds of crimes my brother committed,” he said. “But I also believe that in all walks of life and in the relationships we have, there is a level of forgiveness that we should all exercise.

Hank and Eric Warner didn’t always get along. The older one had a close bond and the younger one was still in trouble. But they grew closer through regular phone calls while Eric was incarcerated. “I really saw this change in my brother,” Hank said. “He was helping the other prisoners. He was becoming a model.

Adamu Chan, a #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition organizer who was released from prison in October, knew Eric Warner and called him “one of the elders of the community.” His loss, said Chan, was difficult to manage.

“When you’re inside and going through these things, I’m not sure you have the space to process,” said Mr. Chan, 44. “Since I got out I think a lot of that sadness has come back to me, and I feel a lot of guilt from the survivor.

Anthony Ehlers, 48, was remorseful over the possibility that he passed the coronavirus on to his best friend and cellmate, James Scott, at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill.

Mr Scott, 58, had been hospitalized for weeks before Mr Ehlers learned from a correctional officer that his friend had died on April 20. “I remember I was alone in the cell, and I just got into bed, facing the wall and sobbing,” Mr Ehlers said via a monitored courier.

“You have to hide your grief here,” he added. “It’s not a beautiful place.”

Mr. Chan used poetry and film to commemorate the men who lost their lives around him.

“Prison is so much about separation – being separated from your family and separated from society,” he said. “Art and imagination can be very powerful tools to get out of this place.”

Elisabeth Joyner, 37, who is incarcerated at Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, creates pencil portraits of people who have died so they don’t have to remember the photos.

“Ranting is one of the most dehumanizing aspects of incarceration,” she said. “This is photo error documentation that you will see for the rest of your life. Isn’t it enough that these people have been dehumanized in life? Should I also dehumanize them in death?

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. A disproportionate number of them are blacks and Hispanics – two groups that have also been hit hard by the pandemic.

Families at this crossroads of personal loss and structural inequality experience the heartache of losing someone twice: once to incarceration, then again, forever, to the virus.

Inez Blue, 65, of Baltimore, lost his brother Anthony Blue, 63, in May. He had been incarcerated at Roxbury Correctional Facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, for a crime he said he did not commit.

Credit…Blue family photo

“It’s difficult for me because I was the closest to him,” Ms. Blue said. “We mostly talked about what we experienced in our childhood. It looks like we have the raw end of the stick.

Mr. Blue had fought to erase his name. His lawyer, Stanley Reed, said his conviction was on the verge of being overturned early last year.

Ms Blue, ready to take care of her little brother, who struggled with mental illness and was blinded while incarcerated, set up a bedroom in her home and bought a new set of quilts and curtains.

But Mr. Blue fell ill in April and was hospitalized. In video chats, Ms. Blue could tell he was in great pain. She felt guilty for asking him to keep fighting.

He died on May 6.

“I feel like he’s failed so many times,” she said. “He gave up because he felt he was never going to be free.

As overcrowded conditions turned prisons into hotspots for coronaviruses, many establishments were limiting visiting hours. Families have done their best to stay in touch through monitored messaging services, hazy video chats or dropped phone calls.

The last time Kenosha Hines, 43, kissed her father, Carlos Ridley, was at Pickaway Correctional Facility in Orient, Ohio, in a white-walled visitation room that smelled of sandwiches.

Credit…Kenosha Hines

She used to bring her two sons. Mr. Ridley, 69, entertained them with stories, jokes and martial arts lessons.

He had fought to exonerate himself using DNA evidence. But his health suddenly deteriorated in April and, during a video call, Ms Hines noticed him.

“He could barely hold his head up,” she said. “We couldn’t talk for long. The video was so jagged that I could barely hear what he was saying. “

On May 5, a correctional officer called to tell him that his father had been taken to the hospital. That night, she watched him take his last breaths during a video chat. She wondered why he hadn’t been hospitalized earlier.

“It was devastating,” she says. “I can’t even put it into words. He’s been there most of my life, and that’s how it happened?

JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said all of Mr. Ridley’s medical needs had “been identified, assessed and addressed promptly.”

She added that “Covid-19 presents unique challenges in a collective environment such as a prison, and the impact – including the loss of eight staff members and over 100 incarcerated adults – has been difficult at times. for staff and the prison population.

Tiffani Fortney, 46, of Prescott, Ariz., Stopped hearing from her father, Scott Cutting, in April.

His repeated calls to Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro, California, where he was incarcerated, provided very little information. So she opened a Twitter account and composed her first tweet on May 4.

“He is in the hospital dying and no one wants to help us by giving us information about his condition,” she said. wrote, to no one in particular. “He went for a short time for a petty crime and now he’s paying with his life.

Five days later Mr. Cutting, 70, the man who seemed able to befriend anyone, often teases his daughter on daily phone calls, and made it his mission to attending as many of his singing performances as possible, has died of Covid-19. .

The pain of losing him like that was terrible, Ms. Fortney said. Mourning swept through the family, and months after her father’s death, Ms Fortney lost her brother, Scott Cutting Jr., 50, to suicide.

“People look down on families like we’ve done something wrong,” she says. “We don’t stop loving our family members just because they did something they shouldn’t have done. I wish more people could see this.

It can be difficult to track deaths from Covid-19 in correctional facilities. Prisons do not document deaths consistently, and obituaries often tiptoe around any mention of incarceration.

This lack of visibility helps the virus to spread, Mr. Ehlers said. “More men will die here who shouldn’t,” he added. “And the only thing that will make a difference is if people speak out.”

An online memorial called Mourning Our Losses is collecting details of people who died from the virus while in prison. So far, the website has recollections of Eric Warner, Mr. Blue, and around 160 other people.

“There was just no room for the grief of people who had dying loved ones inside,” said Page Dukes, a writer and activist who works on the project. “This heartbreak was very largely disenfranchised because of this idea that people who were in prison somehow deserved to have Covid – and die from Covid – more than others.

Memorials include officers, health care staff and others who worked in correctional facilities – a nod to the fact that overcrowded or unsanitary conditions are also dangerous for employees and can accelerate the spread of the disease. viruses in surrounding communities.

“Crimes and convictions don’t matter to the spread of Covid in this location,” Mr. Ehlers said. “He’s an equal opportunity killer.”

In an effort to honor the humanity of those who have died, the memorials do not mention criminal convictions.

“People who do not have an intimate knowledge of the penal system often forget several things about incarcerated people,” said Ms. Joyner, who draws portraits for the website. “Namely, that we are people, above all.”

Mr Ehlers, who wrote a memorial for Mr Scott, said he knew his tribute could be avoided because the two men had been convicted of murder – “huge and terrible mistakes that affect a lot of people. “. But he was also worried that if he didn’t talk about his grief and his friend, no one else would.

“We are all more than our crimes,” Mr. Ehlers said. “We are fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, cousins ​​and friends. We are also important to people.

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After losing seats in the House, Democrats nominate Nancy Pelosi for another term as president.

House Democrats, still counting their electoral losses, re-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi as leader on Wednesday by a voice vote, formally appointing the California Democrat for another term as President as they prepare for what could be the weakest majority in the House for nearly two decades.

Ms Pelosi, 80, has yet to get 218 votes in the House to become speaker in January, but she is on track to do so, with some of the Democrats who opposed the hammer acquisition in 2019 now lining up behind her and others pack their desks after losing.

“The theme, I think, of what we do next has to be justice,” Pelosi told fellow Democrats in remarks after the votes, according to an aide. “It must be about justice in our economy. It must be about justice in our justice system, by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Breonna Taylor, say her name. Say his name. Justice in our environment, environmental justice. Justice in our health care.

Ms Pelosi also pleaded with Democrats, who have traded blame on the party’s unexpected losses in Congress, to unite and put their heads down to listen to their constituents.

Meeting virtually due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic, Democrats also re-elected Ms Pelosi’s top MPs, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland as Majority Leader and Rep. James Clyburn of Carolina South as Democratic Whip.

The caucus also reaffirmed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a potential successor to Ms Pelosi, as chairman and elevated Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, a progressive, to assistant speaker, the party’s No.4, above representative David Cicilline. from Rhode Island. The results position Mr Jeffries, 50, and Ms Clark, 57, among the top contenders to replace Ms Pelosi, Mr Hoyer, 81, and Mr Clyburn, 80, when they retire.

Ms Pelosi, who approaches nearly two decades as leader of the House Democrats, will face a unique challenge in January with little room for maneuver between the progressive and moderate wings of the party as she strives to issue President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s agenda

The Democrats ‘failure to defeat a single incumbent Republican while they lost at least eight of their own turned what was a comfortable 232-to-197 advantage into what is possibly the Democrats’ slimmest margin since World War II . With a handful of races yet to be called, Democrats will likely control around 222 seats, not allowing more than a few of their members to defect in any given vote.

With Ms Pelosi’s re-election on Wednesday, the political landscape in Washington that will welcome Mr Biden in January continues to take shape. House Republicans elected their leaders for the next Congress on Tuesday; Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, will continue in this post.

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Hillary Clinton points to the “gracious” letter the last losing Republican president wrote to his successor.

Providing another example of how President Trump’s reaction to his electoral loss differs from that of other presidents, Hillary Clinton on Tuesday released a letter that an incumbent President George HW Bush wrote to a new president, Bill Clinton , in 1993.

“You will be our president when you read this note, ”Mr. Bush, a Republican and the latest incumbent to lose reelection, wrote to Mr. Clinton, his Democratic successor, on inauguration day. “Your success is now the success of our country. I root you hard. Good luck.”

“This is how it’s done in America,” Ms. Clinton wrote on Instagram, calling the letter “gracious”.

“From the very beginning, American presidents have accepted the will of the people and participated in a peaceful transfer of power,” she writes. “This is what makes our democracy so unique and so enduring.”

To be fair, Mr. Trump has 71 days to write a similar note to Mr. Biden. But given the way things are going so far, that move seems unlikely. Mr Trump broke Washington standards for four years, has yet to admit he lost the election and is blocking the start of a period of peaceful transition, breaking a long-standing precedent.

Mr. Bush was the last president to serve before Mr. Trump. But the similarities end there.

“This is how we see it and the country should see it – that the people have spoken and that we respect the majesty of the democratic system,” said Mr. Bush in his election night concession speech in 1992 “Just called Governor Clinton went to Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He ran a solid campaign. I wish him good luck in the White House.

Transitions have already faced obstacles. The most recent – in 2016, when Mr. Trump was preparing to take over from President Barack Obama – was difficult and overdue due to the shaking of Mr. Trump’s team. Eight years earlier, Mr. Obama’s transition was difficult because he had to replace his chief of staff on several occasions.

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“Fat and happy” with a conservative court, are Republicans losing a winning question?

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation on Monday virtually guarantees a lasting Conservative majority in the Supreme Court for years to come and provides the culmination of the Trump administration’s broader effort to firmly push the entire federal justice system to the right.

His work has been so swift and efficient that there is only one vacant post in the courts of appeal: the seat left open by Judge Barrett’s promotion.

But President Trump and the Republicans risk falling victim to their own success. Without the specter of a liberal court to further motivate Tory voters, they might find themselves without the problem that played a crucial role in Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory four years ago and fortified his political base throughout. of a tumultuous first term.

“It’s like the dog is grabbing the car,” said Charlie Cook, editor of Cook’s non-partisan political report, which cripples the election and predicts a tough environment for Republicans up and down the poll.

On a larger level, there is the risk of becoming complacent. Republicans are convinced they seem to have prevailed in their decades-long quest to install more conservatives in the courts. Then there’s the problem that Barrett’s confirmation was uneventful and anticlimactic – not exactly the kind of show that has people parading the streets.

Normally, a confirmation fight in the Supreme Court is an opportunity that captures the attention of the country and energizes supporters on the left and right. But the fact that the whole country knew that Judge Barrett’s confirmation was a virtual lock took away any sense of mystery or intrigue.

“There was no drama,” Mr. Cook said. “After about three days it became clear that the Democrats could hardly do anything. So it just didn’t have any legs. And there are so many other things going on.

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Privately, Republicans have expressed some disappointment that there was very little partisan fury and outrage that erupted during Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation in 2018 – a remarkably emotional and divisive cultural conflict that raised questions of class and privilege, gender roles and the presumption of belief extended to victims of sexual assault.

Although Judge Kavanaugh strongly denied the charges and his allies accused Democrats of a vicious smear campaign, Republicans also believe the hearings woke their constituents weeks before the midterm election at one point. where the polls showed little enthusiasm on their side and many donors were. stay on the sidelines.

In November, Republicans won a total of two Senate seats. In red states like North Dakota, Kavanaugh’s question has helped push already tough races even further out of reach. Donors who had written off the party have started signing checks again.

Strategists said they couldn’t be so sure Conservative voters will view court with the same urgency as before. And they’re looking for new ways to motivate their base.

“Right now we’re big and happy,” said Mike Davis, chair of Project Article III, a group that strategizes with Republican senators and the White House on judicial confirmations. “We have the first true Conservative majority on the Supreme Court in 80 years. The president has done such a remarkable job on judicial appointments that we have no more seats in the federal circuit to fill. So Republicans could be complacent while Democrats are excited.

But Mr. Davis did not abandon the court as a way to ignite fervor on his side. He puts his hopes in the baggage of the court.

“Judicial wrapping is much more of a cultural struggle,” said Davis, describing the Republican message on the issue, which encompasses a variety of proposals to reform the structure of the judiciary, such as adding new judges. to the Supreme Court and enlargement to the lower courts.

He went through a list of rights he thought an expanded tribunal would jeopardize: religious expression, freedom of speech, possession of firearms. “Judicial packaging is an extreme, clear and present danger,” he said.

Mr. Trump and Republicans in races across the country amplify these claims. Speaking at a campaign rally Monday afternoon in Allentown, Pa., The president warned that his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., “would pack the Supreme Court with radical justices who will shred your Second Amendment and Pro-Life. and so many other things.

He only mentioned Justice Barrett’s appointment in passing. And he didn’t bring up the Supreme Court issue – the issue many Tory voters consider his greatest achievement – at all during the last presidential debate last week.

Few other Republican candidates mention Barrett’s confirmation in their campaigns, instead, after Democrats with exaggerated claims about a plot by “far-left Democrats like Nancy Pelosi” to pack the courts, as an ad of the Kansas Republican National Senate Committee there. As Speaker of the House, Ms. Pelosi has no official role in judicial confirmations, which the Senate manages. And Mr Biden has not said he supports any plan to add judges to the courts, but has offered to look into the matter through a bipartisan commission if elected.

When Mr. Trump started running for president five years ago, the idea that he might be able to pick the next Supreme Court justice was enough to alarm many conservatives. They feared that he would not understand how important the issue was, questioned the sincerity of his opposition to abortion and considered it very possible that he was appointing his sister, a retired federal judge, to the bench.

But in the spring of 2016, as he wrapped up the appointment, he released a list of top Conservative judges and lawyers he had vowed to stick to when appointing someone who had given him leadership. credibility on the matter. And the Tories have shown themselves determined to prevent a Hillary Clinton-formed Supreme Court that could possibly ban the annulment of Roe v. Wade, who established a legal right to abortion.

The court, as an issue, helped Mr. Trump win 81% of the white evangelical vote. And his commitment to him throughout his first term – as well as his willingness to speak out about issues so bluntly and declare his desire to see Roe defeated, which Republicans usually didn’t say even though they privately believed him. – forged a seemingly unbreakable bond with social conservatives.

Robert P. Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute, said these trends seemed likely to continue in this election. Nearly nine in 10 white evangelicals say they are “absolutely certain” to vote, he said, and the share of white evangelicals supporting the president remains high – 79%.

Mr. Jones believes there is room for growth. “At this point in the game in 2016, that number was only 69%,” he said.

Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action for America, cited “unprecedented enthusiasm” for Justice Barrett’s appointment as a grassroots Conservative and said her place on the bench would bring “a much needed change from the militant drift of the court ”.

A significant number of people, however, could see the court as an issue that prompts them to vote for Mr Biden. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a hero to many Liberals, was a galvanizing event unlike any other this year for Democrats.

Senate Democrats also played their weak hand on confirmation in a more cautious and strategic manner than Republicans anticipated. Instead of raising questions about Judge Barrett’s religious beliefs as a conservative Catholic and how this shaped his case law, which Republicans expected and prepared, Democrats mainly focused on wording of Barrett’s confirmation as the death knell for the Affordable Care Act and the coverage it provides for pre-existing medical conditions.

“It did not excite the conservative base,” said Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project.

But what can, he said, is a Senate vote to confirm a sixth Tory in court – and a reminder that an election in a week’s time could undo that and all the work Tories have done. with the courts over the past four years.

“With our constituents, we reminded them that if Trump loses and we lose the Senate, Democrats intend to court,” he said. “We can lose that in the blink of an eye – a week after winning it – and I think that’s a powerful message.”