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Covid-19 Is Turning Prison Terms into Death Sentences

States must do more to cut prison populations in order to save lives.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that the state will release approximately 8,000 people from prison by the end of August. That announcement did not occur in a vacuum — as Covid-19 rages across the country, nowhere is its impact felt more than in our prisons and jails.

Along with meatpacking plants and long-term care facilities, prisons have emerged as some of the biggest Covid-19 clusters. One of these is in California’s San Quentin State Prison, which is the focus of Newsom’s action and where a month prior to the prison’s outbreak, officials there turned down free Covid-19 testing for incarcerated individuals. As of July 30, 19 people at San Quentin have died from the virus.

San Quentin is just one of the more egregious examples of how mismanagement and overcrowding in prisons has led to mass outbreaks. For months, advocates and the families of incarcerated individuals have sounded the alarm about the risk their loved ones face while incarcerated, but not nearly enough has been done.

In April, John Lennon, a prison journalist who is currently incarcerated at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, told NPR, “Social distancing, to the extent that you guys do it in society, is impossible to achieve in a place like Sing Sing and most prisons around the nation, I would say. The tier is like 2 feet wide. You literally have to like go chest-to-chest to slide by somebody.”

Overcrowding makes this predictable problem even worse. In 2018, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that six states, as well as the federal prison system, had prison populations that were significantly higher than the maximum capacity that their facilities were designed for. If anything, those numbers have become worse in the last two years.  

In addition to overcrowding, limited access to healthcare and high numbers of elderly and at-risk individuals are some of the many reasons prisons have become hotspots for the virus. In Alabama, a 2019 Justice Department report on unconstitutional conditions inside Alabama prisons detailed broken pipes, open sewage, and dilapidated personal hygiene facilities. Multiple public health and criminal justice experts have said that the best way to control the virus is to dramatically decrease prison populations. Yet in most states, governments have been unwilling to heed that advice. What was already a bad situation has been made significantly worse by an unwillingness to decarcerate during the pandemic.

It’s not that solutions, or the will to act, are absent from the criminal justice system at large: by comparison, jails around the country have reduced their populations by close to 30 percent. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, this can be attributed to a number of factors, such as prosecutors declining to charge low-level offenses, pre-trial release, and the reduction and elimination of cash bail.

By comparison, state prison systems have largely focused on halting admissions and releasing only the most medically vulnerable, leading to negligible decreases in their populations. Since the pandemic started, the U.S. prison population has only decreased by about 5 percent.

The failure to implement meaningful changes becomes even more severe when we look at international examples. Not long after the start of the pandemic, France announced that it had decreased its prison population by close to 10,000 people, or 14 percent. And in March, Iran announced that it had temporarily freed 54,000 people from prison in an attempt to slow the virus.

Governors across the country should be taking the lead by granting clemency to those in our prison system who are elderly or suffer from serious medical conditions. Governors can also issue executive orders to offer additional merit time or credits to reduce prison sentences above and beyond “good-time” reductions. States can focus on increasing the parole rate of those who are eligible for release through parole, similar to how Michigan has attempted to decrease its state prison population by increasing the number of people paroled from state prisons by about 1,000 people per month. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, state legislatures should pass legislation that would immediately get people out of prison. As of the end of the July, the only state that appears to have taken this step is New Jersey, whose legislature is close to approving a bill that would reduce the state’s prison population by close to 20 percent. Notably, this bill (with some exceptions), also extends to incarcerated individuals convicted of violent crimes.

Yet very few states are taking these steps to dramatically reduce their prison populations, and those that have, including California, have largely been slow to act. Additionally, while California’s plan to release 8,000 prisoners far surpasses what other states have promised, the releases would account for less than an 8 percent decrease of the entire state’s prison population. It is no surprise, then, that California received an F+ grade in the ACLU’s recent report on states’ responses to the pandemic with respect to criminal justice.

States with rocketing Covid-19 rates overall are seeing a parallel disaster unfold in their prisons. At the beginning of the pandemic, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott rejected the possibility of prison releases, tweeting that “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.” Texas, which as of July 24 had one of the highest infection rates in the country, has reported at least 107 total deaths from Covid-19 in the Texas criminal justice system. By comparison, as of July 30, the Bureau of Prisons had reported 103 deaths in federal prisons.

By failing to act, Abbott has essentially sentenced those in and around Texas prisons to death. One of those victims was James Allen Smith, a 73-year old former teacher who was sentenced to prison for less than a year for driving while intoxicated. On June 11, he died in prison from Covid-19. 

For every story like Smith’s, there are many more whose names we will never know. Unless something changes, we will continue to see our worst predictions play out in prisons around the country. Refusing to take steps to reduce prison populations is negligence at best and active obstruction at worst. We cannot sit by and watch Covid-19 become a death sentence in our nation’s prisons. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” By that measure, one would not think much of our society.

With research support from Ava Kaufman