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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