Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Thanksgiving amid coronavirus: Far from perfect, but we’re here
There’s a prayer central to Judaism called the Shehecheyanu that seems particularly on point this year. It’s basically a prayer of thanks for being around to say a prayer of thanks. Which may seem like a bit of circular reasoning, but if you pause on the sentiment a moment it makes a lot of sense. You could even call it, if you were so inclined, a mindfulness prayer, a reminder to take nothing for granted.
As if 2020 hasn’t done that already.
This is a year that’s tested us in ways that would have been hard to imagine 12 moths ago. We have suffered losses of friends and family, we have endured a hostile and damaging election, and we have been forced to let go of the simple ties of friendship that bring joy to our days. We are stumbling toward 2021 damaged.
There is no going back.
Anyone who has suffered a loss in their life — and our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus — learns that grief doesn’t go away. It changes you, for better in some ways, worse in others. You figure out how to make it part of who you are, how to carry that emptiness around with you in a way that lets you continue pushing forward. But you don’t bounce back. You are changed.
This year has changed us. We have lived through and witnessed unspeakable sadness: wives, husbands and children unable to say final goodbyes in person; lives abruptly cut short; hunger and despair spreading; jobs and businesses lost to economic paralysis. We have missed out on weddings, graduations, anniversaries, birthdays. We have struggled through a presidential election that has left us divided and angry.
We’ve also seen some amazing things. We’ve seen nurses, doctors, nursing home workers and others put themselves on the front line of the crisis to help others. We’ve seen the generosity of neighbors and friends who’ve reached out to those in need. And we’ve seen a renewed commitment to confronting the longstanding racial fault lines that have long marginalized too many.
For most of us, it can take a lifetime to witness the range of terrors life can bring and another to understand the depth of its wonders. And maybe a third to marvel at the capacity of so many people to find light amid the darkness. Those of us who have lived through 2020 have experienced all that in just nine months. It’s no wonder we are all exhausted.
But, most of all, we are here. Devastated. Grieving. Angry. Frustrated. Impatient. Hopeful. Pessimistic, Optimistic. Grateful. Shehechyanu.
Cruel and all too usual: State fails inmates with mental illness
The Boston Globe
Massachusetts prison inmates suffering from serious mental illness — and that’s about a quarter of all inmates — are subject to such horrifying conditions that it violates their constitutional rights, federal prosecutors have concluded. And the evidence they amassed is overwhelming.
An investigation undertaken by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the US attorney’s office in Boston found “reasonable cause” that the state Department of Correction “fails to provide constitutionally adequate supervision to prisoners in mental health crisis; fails to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners in mental health crisis; and uses prolonged mental health watch under restrictive housing conditions, which violates the constitutional rights of prisoners in mental health crisis.”
Their report, made public last week, includes tales of neglect and deprivation and human callousness so disturbing as to be unconscionable in a modern prison setting. It describes a system where inmates in the throes of mental health crises are locked away in solitary cells (average size: 93 square feet) for 23 hours a day, without access to mental health treatment, and watched over by guards who have been known to fall asleep or, even worse, “taunt and encourage” inmates to self-harm.
All of this comes in the wake of a state criminal justice reform bill passed in 2018 and intended in part to deal with issues posed by the chronically mentally ill. It also aimed to reduce the use of solitary confinement generally. Prisoners’ rights advocates maintain the DOC has done everything it can to thwart the aims of that law.
Much in the Justice Department report supports that contention — and that means that ultimately state correction officials, with their track record, can’t be trusted to fix the myriad issues raised by prosecutors without federal court supervision and an independent monitor appointed by the court to bird-dog needed reforms.
Some 2,100 of the system’s 8,700 inmates are considered to be suffering from serious mental illness. During the period of the investigation, some 900 inmates were placed on mental health watch — a status that, according to the report, means “access to property and interactions with others are minimal.”
The report continues, “Prisoners are often initially placed in smocks and only have access to books, radio, or recreation at the discretion of the staff.” Any interaction with a mental health clinician — if it happens at all — is often a 10- to 15-minute conversation through a crack in the cell door.
Solitary confinement by any other name is still solitary confinement.
While DOC policy says four days is the standard for such mental health holds, federal investigators found that, during the 13 months of their probe, 51 prisoners were on mental health watch for a month or more consecutively, 16 for more than three consecutive months, and seven spent six consecutive months or more under such conditions.
And if the object was to keep an inmate safe from self-harm, investigators found numerous examples of how that often did not work:
▪ “On July 10, 2019, CC, housed at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, cut himself so badly that blood can be seen pooling on his cell floor in the video obtained by the Department. The video captures correctional officers standing outside his cell door without intervening for 45 minutes — while he is on constant 1:1 (one to one) mental health watch — before he is finally transported to an outside hospital.”
▪ “On October 29, 2019, SS, a gay man who had issues with incontinence because of prostate cancer, died by suicide after hanging himself in his Restrictive Housing Unit cell at MCI-Shirley. His death occurred just 12 days after being released from a nine-day mental health watch stay. . . . We learned that he had been ‘tormented’ by peers and officers for being gay and for having to wear a diaper.”
▪ “BB spent 77 consecutive days on mental health watch at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. He had been on mental health watch for 50 consecutive days, when, on May 15, he attempted to hang himself with his security smock tied around his neck. . . . During the next 27 days he continued to harm himself.”
The response to the report from the DOC has been tepid. It has stopped selling razors to some inmates at some facilities and has implemented additional staff training. A statement from a department spokesman said DOC “continues to work closely with DOJ.”
The on-site DOJ investigation was completed before COVID-19 hit the state and its prisons. The pandemic has put further strains on the system, both increasing the isolation of inmates and exacerbating staff shortages.
All of which means that, despite an imminent change in administrations in Washington, this investigation must not be allowed to gather dust on a shelf. A similar finding by DOJ about the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority in Virginia this summer led to a consent decree between the Justice Department and that prison, approved by the federal court, along with the appointment of an independent monitor to assure that all the terms and conditions of the agreement would be met over the ensuing five years.
That’s something that should happen here in Massachusetts, too. US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who, in a letter to Governor Charlie Baker, expressed the hope for a “cooperative approach,” should settle for nothing less than a consent decree and an independent federal monitor. The DOC has shown in recent years that it cannot be left to reform its own practices without a watchdog to keep it honest. Lelling can and should make sure that happens.
Millions of Americans going hungry this winter
Portland Press Herald
This holiday season, Americans are struggling to put food on the table at historic rates.
Overall, 1 in 8 American households say they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat, according to a recent analysis of federal data by The Washington Post. That number rises to 1 in 6 in households with children.
More Americans are hungry now than at any point during the pandemic. There is more hunger now than at any point since at least 1998, when comparable data was first collected.
Sadly, this level of hunger was entirely predictable, and though it is clear what needs to be done, the federal government simply isn’t doing it.
The pandemic caused record unemployment, but a lot of the hurt was alleviated by the federal relief programs passed by Congress in March.
However, many of those programs, including enhanced unemployment, have run out or will by the end of the year. The Americans whose finances have been affected the most during the pandemic, many of whom were struggling before COVID hit, are at the end of their rope, if they haven’t run out already.
Left unaddressed, the hunger, along with its short- and long-term effects on people’s health, well-being and employment prospects, will get worse. Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, projects that ultimately 1 in 6 people and 1 in 4 children will not have enough food this year.
That will come as no surprise to the people who run food assistance organizations in Maine, which historically has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England.
In August, thousands of Mainers showed up when boxes of food were handed out in Augusta, a scene that has been repeated elsewhere in the state many times since then. Food pantries up and down the state are preparing for a rough winter, as they see more and more new faces coming for help.
Good Shepherd Food Bank, the largest food bank in Maine, expects food insecurity to rise by as much as 40 percent this year.
There’s no doubt what needs to be done to help. Besides injecting billions of dollars into the economy at a time when it is vulnerable, reinstituting some level of enhanced unemployment benefits, such as those given out in the first few months of the pandemic, would give struggling Americans some breathing room, as would extending the length of time people can receive those benefits.
Also, benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, should be increased and extended through the duration of the crisis.
Those items could be included in a relief package, but Congress has been unable to agree on one, as Republicans have pushed an inadequate package – and some in the party don’t want any agreement at all.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans are looking ahead to a bleak winter.
The Rutland Herald
In many ways, it is hard to give thanks today. But we must.
Despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic, and the divisiveness of our nation, we must count our blessings and demonstrate our gratitude for each and every one of them.
For certain, this is the most unusual Thanksgiving we have seen in generations. Were it not for advances in technology, medicine and the adaptability of businesses, it would be a much harder day.
Yesterday, President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. delivered a raw, empathetic and optimistic address to Americans, urging them to “hang on” as they faced a long, hard winter and with coronavirus cases spiking across the country.
“Looking back over our history, you see that it’s been in the most difficult circumstances that the soul of our nation has been forged,” Biden said. He urged Americans to come together to fight the virus. “I know the country has grown weary of the fight. We need to remember we’re at war with the virus, not with one another, not with each other.”
Later, as he urged Americans to wear face masks and practice social distancing, he noted, “None of these steps we’re asking people to take are political statements. Every one of them is based on science, real science.”
Public health officials have pleaded with Americans to stay home this year for Thanksgiving. And, despite busy airports this week, most people plan to follow their advice. Here in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott and his advisers have made the plea to stay home, be safe, and help turn the tide of a surge in positive COVID cases and an uptick in COVID-related deaths.
Health officials are worried about Thanksgiving celebrations as coronavirus cases have reached record highs in many areas of the country. Traditional holiday celebrations, with long meals indoors and with some travel typically involved, could contribute to more cases of the disease, which is primarily spread through droplets and aerosols that can linger in unventilated indoor spaces.
So here we are. A different kind of Thanksgiving. The Macy’s parade is still taking place, minus the crowds. There is still the dog show, some sports and movie marathons on TV.
But it is true this is anything but traditional. The results, if we stick to our convictions, will pay off moving forward.
We have to.
“If we layer in travel and large indoor gatherings which we know are drivers of transmission, we expect to see a massive surge on top of an already dire situation,” said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, warning that such a surge could result in a “humanitarian crisis.”
The facts are clear: Holidays have proven to be a catalyst of COVID-19 spread across the country. Earlier this year, after each summer holiday, the U.S. reported a significant uptick in infection across the country, and experts say Thanksgiving could have all the components of a potentially deadly event.
Take a look at the trends.
Prior to Memorial Day in May, the national seven-day average of new cases was hovering around 21,000 new cases a day. Five weeks later, that average had doubled, according to an ABC analysis of data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project.
A similar pattern occurred just over a month later following the Fourth of July weekend. Less than three weeks after Independence Day, the average number of new cases had risen by almost 40%, with nearly 60,000 patients hospitalized.
And after the summer surge began to decline, it was shortly after Labor Day that new cases began to rise again, bringing the country to its latest surge. As the weather got cooler, public health experts who had long warned against large gatherings began sounding the alarm that even small gatherings — particularly those that are indoors, with poor ventilation — could drive COVID-19 transmission.
Since mid-September, the number of daily coronavirus cases has increased by nearly 400%, and now the virus is significantly more widespread than it ever was during the summer.
The national average of daily new cases is now more than 100,000 higher than it was in July and five times higher than it was during the initial peak in April.
This month, the U.S. has reported nearly more than 3.2 million COVID-19 cases, making it by far the worst month on record for daily cases, with a quarter of the country’s total cases.
On this day of scaled-back celebration, count the greatest blessings of all: family and health.
Let it be that simple, and let’s leave these hard days behind us.