COVID-19: How Going to Jail Became A Death SentenceRev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman / May 30, 2020
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As we enter this ninth week of quasi-quarantine and “social-distancing” brought on by the plague of COVID-19, the Coronavirus, I find myself eerily in the same place I was before the pandemic: fighting systemic socio-economic and racial injustice, and looking for allies and antiracists to join in this righteous struggle. The various fronts in this fight seem many; our allies, especially in the justice system and the courts, few. A multitude of curtains are being torn back revealing some hideous realities.
Though pausing most of our activities of leisure, CORONA fails to so much as slow down this country’s greatest pastime: marginalizing and oppressing the voiceless- many of whom are melanin rich, the working poor, or both. To be sure, the Coronavirus Pandemic has magnified for all those willing to see, the self-evident truth that many of us have long tried to bring into mainstream focus: that racism and classism are rampant in this nation.
Recently, the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, along with other organizations of social and judicial conscience, filed suit in Court- first in the North Carolina Supreme Court, and then in the trial court- seeking an Order to reduce the current jail population in North Carolina to combat the deadly pandemic. A recent New York Times article entitled: “Jails are Petri Dishes: Inmates Freed as the Virus Spreads Behind Bars,” noted that the virus was “spreading quickly in America’s jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible and sanitizer is widely banned.” Our writ of mandamus was summarily dismissed for no apparent or justifiable reason. The Beasley Court indeed had jurisdiction to hear us but used its privilege to lob the case back to us as the clock tick-tocks away precious time for one community of particularly vulnerable people who had been left out of the Governor’s efforts to contain the spread of the deadly virus as we sought a lesser court for this tremendously weighty matter to be handled. Thousands of lives were left hanging in the balance between some pitiful political pandering and pathetic procedural rules now governing the courts.
We were granted a hearing by Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier and were encouraged by his May 1, 2020 ruling to order, adjudge and decree that the defendants, among other things, produce verified statements that “living conditions designed to reasonably prevent the spread of COVID-19, including but not limited to reassigning bunks to allow for six feet or more between each sleeping occupant, a ‘head to foot’ bunk arrangement, and rearranged scheduling to prevent or eliminate the mixing of individuals between different housing areas,” However, 12 days later we were taser-stunned as a final order denying both our motion for a temporary restraining order and our alternative motion for a writ of mandamus left us dazed. Rozier, on this one, could very well have landed an audition to appear on Dancing with the Stars but fell far short in the impartial dispensing of justice. We were unsuccessful in persuading the Rozier Court that science and common-sense suggested keeping more people in jail increases the likelihood of an outbreak in these facilities (and to the outside community as detention facility employees go home to their families) because of the close contact of the inmates and oftentimes unsanitary conditions. The Courts that we had heretofore considered close allies proved unpersuaded and quite unfair. Our prospects in the inferior courts seem destined to meet the same fate.
It is this battle to preserve life and humanity that has me thinking about, and quite frankly, longing for, former Judge, Mark Cummings. A principled, strong young man who was never afraid to do what was right; what was just. A true drum major for justice, these times are made for people with the courage and conviction of Judge Cummings.
Like many of you, I was nauseated by the orchestrated attack on that young man’s character, and his good and merciful work, by and in The Greensboro News & Record. The paper, no doubt doing the bidding of Judge Cummings’ detractors, painted unflattering portraits of him; its pages dripping with the vitriol of purposeful leaks designed to kill his character, while at the same time giving aid, comfort and ink space to those same detractors attempting to kill Judge Cummings’ career. How perverse were their actions: leaking that Judge Cummings was under investigation by Judicial Standards- an event that by law was supposed to remain confidential- and then intentionally deceiving the public by accusing Judge Cummings of revealing the investigation when the reporter knew that only Judicial Standards, Judge Cummings, and Former Chief District Court Judge H. Thomas Jarrell had knowledge that Judge Cummings had been served with violations.
The paper also printed portions of an Order by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Joe Craig which, playing on racial stereotypes and tropes of Black men as aggressive and violent, first banned Judge Cummings from the courthouse and his office in the courthouse, and after that proved unpalatable, required Judge Cummings to go through security and be escorted by security –sometimes armed guards- while in the courthouse. Months later, Judge Craig would find himself authoring a piece in the same News & Record admonishing people not to cast stones at the now former Chief District Court Judge H. Thomas Jarrell who had died months earlier from an overdose on heroin and fentanyl. How is it that this man is celebrated, his picture hanging proudly in the District Court Judges Chamber? Yet Judge Cummings was subjected to ridicule, embarrassing and defamatory accusations and innuendo. The powers that be found it necessary to have the State Bureau of Investigations investigate where Judge Cummings lived, but have not found it necessary to investigate how a Judge, the Chief District Judge no less, obtained heroin and fentanyl; but even more than that, how many Defendants Jarrell sent to jail for possession or use of illegal drugs while he himself was using them.
I am wary of Judge Craig’s admonishment, and as a Christian, I understand its value and virtue. However, I must point out that, ironically, if not just perversely, there had been no such admonishment in favor of Judge Cummings. Instead, Craig and others lobbied Chief Justice Cheri Beasley to suspend Judge Cummings from the bench; and in what many perceive to be her first act, she acquiesced, and suspended, possibly unlawfully, Judge Cummings. I guess politics make strange allies.
I hear that Judge Cummings has returned to private practice, no doubt still fighting for justice. Oh, how I long for a judge like him. You can better believe this: In November, we will be looking for one.
Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman is president of the North Carolina NAACP.