Can an old black man get the Manafort treatment? by Julianne Malveaux

5/21/2020, 6 p.m.
There were 4,623 incarcer- ated people over 65 in federal prisons during the first week of May. Until May 12, …
Julianne Malveaux

There were 4,623 incarcerated people over 65 in federal prisons during the first week of May. Until May 12, Paul Manafort, President Trump’s one-time campaign manager, was one of them. The 71-year-old petitioned the court for release to home confinement because of his age, heart condition and “fear of coronavirus.”

Yet the federal correctional institution that housed Mr. Manafort had no coronavirus cases, and Mr. Manafort had served fewer than two years of his more than seven-year sentence.

Recently developed federal guidelines suggest at-home confinement for those at risk who have served more than half of their sentence or have less than 18 months of jail time left to serve. Mr. Manafort meets none of these criteria, but he apparently had enough high-priced lawyers to push his case aggressively.

I’m not as outraged at Mr. Manafort’s early release as I am disturbed about the other 4,622 elderly inmates, most of whom lack the resources and access that Mr. Manafort had.

Nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in federal prisons are African-American, many serving very long sentences for drug-related crimes. Many have some of the same underlying

medical conditions and “fear of coronavirus” that Mr. Manafort had. How many of them will get an early release and the relative luxury of home confinement?

The treatment of a wealthy, older white man and a poor, older black man is vastly different. Prisons are a breeding ground for the coronavirus. Prisons are overcrowded, with social distancing an impossibility because an average cell, about 5 feet by 5 feet, does not allow 6 feet of distancing. Recent studies show that the COVID-19 germs from a loud conversation or a cough linger for minutes, giving sufficient time to infect another person.

The notorious Rikers Island prison has eight times the COVID-19 infection rate of the New York City rate. Infection is not a possibility, but a near certainty. Prison infections are so widespread that some activists describe prisons as “death camps.”

Older people don’t commit violent crimes – although they commit financial crimes and perjury. Releasing those over age 65 who were convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent crimes saves money and has little social cost.

But incarceration is an economic driver for some communities. Federal prisons employ tens of thousands of people. In some isolated communities, these prisons are a significant source of employment. Releasing prisoners early may cause layoffs. Is this why we insist on keeping so many people locked up for such long periods?

Parole was eliminated in federal prison in the mid-1980s, allowing for “good behavior” only after 85 percent of a sentence has been served. But Mr. Manafort, citing “fear of corona,” ended up serving less than a quarter of his sentence.

Can an old black man get the Manafort treatment and serve the rest of his sentence in a cushy condo in Northern Virginia? Mr. Manafort had a lot less to fear at his minimum security prison than a black inmate might.

Other countries seem to understand that COVID-19 and crowding don’t work and are releasing prisoners. Meanwhile, our country, in Mr. Anderson’s words, is “addicted to punishment.” In keeping nonviolent inmates incarcerated, we are “prioritizing punishment over public health.”

The inmates aren’t the only ones at risk. Correctional officers, lawyers and visiting family members also are vulnerable. We are so committed to getting a “pound of flesh” from those incarcerated that we refuse to consider the high costs of incarceration.

Consider the case of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and other crimes, Mr. Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years for his crimes. He is not scheduled to be released until 2037. While Mr. Kilpatrick certainly deserved to be convicted, a 28-year sentence is excessive.

Recently, an inmate at the Oakdale, La., prison where Mr. Kilpatrick is being held died from the coronavirus. I’m sure Mr. Kilpatrick is as frightened of the coronavirus as Mr. Manafort is. But Mr. Kilpatrick is not likely to be allowed home confinement. Unless there is intervention, Mr. Kilpatrick will be eligible for Social Security before he is released.

What is the purpose of such a long sentence? How much does it cost to incarcerate someone for 28 years? Is it worth it?

Mr. Manafort is out after less than two years. Thousands who are old and poor remain incarcerated

The writer is an economist, educator and author.