SMIRK (audio version)
Chapter 15, Part 1: Guns, Germs & Steel

Chapter 15, Part 1: Guns, Germs & Steel

What happened when a pandemic collided with the U.S. prison system? Neglect, heartless bureaucratic delays, and death.

In January 2020, the idea of the coronavirus sweeping the globe “Contagion”-style sounded to me like manufactured hysteria. I assumed Covid was a far-away problem, confined mostly to China and Italy. Even if the disease did start to creep into the U.S., I reasoned that it couldn’t be more deadly than the typical flu.

But starting in February, an onslaught of events steadily proved me wrong. First, a cluster of infections sprang up near Seattle – worrisome, but still on the opposite side of the country from me. Then the disease hit closer to home. The first patient in New York City, a 39-year-old healthcare worker who had just returned from abroad, was confirmed to have Covid on March 1.

Meanwhile, situations overseas kept getting worse, foreshadowing the apocalyptic clusterf*ck headed our way. Whole cities were quarantined. Hospitals were overflowing. Death tolls marched upward. Even more stunningly, on March 3, I saw the news that Iran, of all places, had temporarily released 54,000 prisoners for humanitarian and public health reasons.

Illustration of a medical professional conducting a Covid screening.
Illustration of a medical professional conducting a Covid screening.

My stomach lurched over the implications. Prisons are natural hotspots for disease. If Iran, a country where it’s still legal to stone people to death, deprioritized punishing wrongdoers, then the crisis must be really, really bad, I realized. At the same time, my intuition told me the U.S. would be unlikely to make the same preemptive move. Too many political careers were built on being “tough on crime,” meaning officials could lose their jobs if they were “nice” to prisoners.

Before Covid set in, Martin Shkreli got a taste of how much misery a highly transmissible virus could wreak behind bars. About a week after Jan. 1, 2020, norovirus – the nasty stomach bug that haunts cruise ships –  broke out in Allenwood Low. Martin characteristically downplayed the awfulness in his emails, but I heard enough details from his friends to piece together an image of pure hell. 

There were just a handful of toilets for the men in his packed dormitory. Norovirus, as anyone who has ever had it can usually recall, causes sudden uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, often simultaneously. Without other options, many of the afflicted vomited and shat in boxes or bags or anywhere else convenient. Grotesque noises and smells undoubtedly traveled throughout the warren of low-walled cubicles.

I assume there was no one to clean up the mess except the inmates themselves, to the extent they were physically able. A medical team eventually checked Martin’s unit to ensure none were suffering from acute dehydration. Visitation was put on hiatus for several weeks as a precaution. 

Martin and I saw each other during a brief window when the facility was finally clear of norovirus in February. I planned to see him again in mid-March for his birthday, but the other Covid shoe finally dropped. On Friday, March 13, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Prisons shut down visitation nationwide.

The action was initially described as “temporary.” I wouldn’t see Martin in person again for more than two years.

At first, I was relieved – at least the prison system was doing something to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. But as the weeks went on and the disease spread throughout major cities, anxiety gnawed at my insides. The more cases and deaths there were, the more evidence there was that this was not a run-of-the-mill cold or flu. It spread much more quickly and the effects were far more unpredictable.

I had recently read The Great Influenza, a fascinating book by historian John M. Barry about the Spanish Flu of 1918.  Like Covid, the Spanish Flu was a novel virus human immune systems were unprepared for. Although the diseases had many differences, both attacked the respiratory system and many other organs. They also both triggered cytokine storms, which were dangerously overactive immune responses that caused massive inflammation and fluid build-up in the lungs. Death from both diseases could also happen with little warning.

While the initial U.S. epicenter New York went into panic mode by instituting lockdowns, requiring masks, swaddling pharmacy counters in protective plastic, and setting up emergency hospitals, the slow wheels of the BOP bureaucracy took what seemed like forever or react. Finally, weeks into the crisis, the bureau started systematically testing prisoners and posting statistics online.

Even assuming corrections officials were finding ways to undercount cases, which they almost certainly were, the results were stunning. Just as predicted by health authorities, the disease tore through prisons almost instantaneously. Easily half of the roughly 150,000 inmates caught Covid before vaccines were made widely available to federal prisoners in 2021. In some facilities, the infection rate ran as high as 70%.

Nothing assured me Martin would be safe. Although BOP issued a “plan” to ease crowding in the prisons by granting some inmates compassionate release, almost no federal inmates were let out. (State and local jails and prisons were sometimes more lenient about releasing prisoners for Covid than the feds.)

For months, I kept the BOP’s Covid information website open on my computer, watching the number of infected climbing and reading every press release the agency issued about sick inmates who had died. I grimaced at a slow parade of notices touting new “phases” of the BOP’s Covid action plan – which mostly involved keeping inmates in even tighter confines, with less access to sunlight and fresh air than usual. The efforts were at best like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and at worst they were downright cruel. 

For a while, Martin’s prison tried to force inmates to remain in their tiny (open) cubicles, permitting only limited access to the bathrooms and no use of phones and email terminals. Using an illegal cellphone, one of Martin’s friends told me that corrections officers were guarding the terminals while brandishing tear gas and rifles loaded with rubber bullets. This “containment” tactic sounded unhelpful and incredibly dangerous to me.

Not knowing what else I could do, I mentally immersed myself in the predicament of other incarcerated people and their families. I tracked prisoner deaths using a spreadsheet and periodically did legal case searches to see what happened to federal inmates requesting compassionate or otherwise early release through the courts. In a few instances, when I knew a Covid outbreak in an inmate’s prison was much worse than what either prosecutors or judges were suggesting, I wrote impassioned letters pointing out their inaccuracies.

Horrifyingly, I saw that some inmates died from Covid after being denied compassionate release by prison officials, while still waiting for a judge to rule on their motion, or shortly after their request was granted. For example, Andre Williams, a 78-year-old man suffering from severe coronary disease, congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease, and other maladies that would make Covid an almost certain death sentence for him spent about three months begging in vain for release, starting in January 2020.

Prosecutors argued that Williams, who was sentenced to life in prison for armed bank robbery in 2005, still represented a threat to public safety. On April 1, 2020, the judge overruled their objections and granted his release. For reasons not available in the public court record, however, Williams was still incarcerated in FCI Butner in North Carolina on April 5, 2020, when he tested positive for Covid. He was transported to a hospital where he died on April 12, 2020.

In another disturbing incident, Scott Cutting, a 70-year-old man serving 26 months for assisting in the preparation of a false tax return, caught and died from Covid before his family even fully understood what was happening. Out of the blue, they were told he had been intubated, and then they were told to sign a “DNR” (do not resuscitate) form.

Desperate, the family hired a lawyer to demand the turnover of his medical information so they could prepare a compassionate release motion. The family didn’t learn until after their records request was filed that he had already passed away.

Guadalupe Ramos, a 56-year-old man incarcerated in Fort Worth, filed a motion for compassionate release on April 21, 2020, and tested positive for Covid just two days later. By April 28, 2020, he was in a hospital, on a ventilator, and in a medically-induced coma. His lawyers asked that the court “immediately resentence him to time-served so he can be released from the Bureau of Prisons custody.”

“A sentence of time served will allow the family to pay their respects,” the lawyers noted, in a chilling reminder of how coldly bureaucratic and cruel death behind bars could be for incarcerated people and their loved ones. “Otherwise, the family has little ability to obtain information about Mr. Ramos and his condition.” 

For more than 10 days, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez did nothing about the request. Ramos was dead by May 10. The judge dismissed his motion the following day as “moot.”

Another especially unsettling death was that of Mohamed Yusuf, a 37-year-old man who pleaded guilty to serving as a “freedom fighter” for al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamic militant group that is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. Although he was prosecuted in federal court in Brooklyn, he wasn’t accused of planning or participating in any would-be attacks on U.S. soil.

Despite his relative youth and good health, Yusuf died of Covid while serving an 11-year sentence in a federal prison in Lompoc, California. While he didn’t file a compassionate release motion, the circumstances of his death were perhaps even more harrowing than for those who did.

According to a BOP news release, Yusuf testified positive for Covid on May 7, 2020, and was placed in “isolation,” which probably meant solitary confinement. On May 25, 2020, he was found “unresponsive” and died. 

If elderly prisoners with serious health conditions were essentially ignored by the system until they were very sick with Covid, and a younger prisoner with Covid was locked up in solitary and ignored until he died, what chance did Martin Shkreli, the “Pharma Bro” and one-time “most hated man in America” stand of remaining safe and alive if he fell ill? The question would not leave my mind, and I knew the answer would likely be devastating.

SMIRK (audio version)
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.