The policies and physical structure of our prisons and jails make the social distancing that is necessary to reduce the spread of covid-19 impossible. I was incarcerated in 2005 when a nasty flu virus tore through the prison unit where I lived. It was an overcrowded dormitory of 50 women, closely packed, with one small communal bathroom and inadequate cleaning supplies. It was impossible to stay separate or healthy in those conditions, and almost every woman there fell seriously ill. I am confident that our guards and other prison workers also left with the flu and took it home with them.
There are more than 7,000 prisons, jails and detention centers in the United States, and nearly half a million workers pass through them every single day. The conditions we allow and the practices followed in these places make the spread of covid-19 among workers and the people locked inside inevitable. Such an outbreak will overwhelm nearby health-care facilities, which are often in already underserved, rural communities.
We can and must do better to protect us all from a longer pandemic.
We should start with many of the 555,000 people in jails awaiting trials who are simply too poor to pay for their freedom under our avaricious cash-bail system. Judges and sheriffs should immediately release all people in city and county jails who are bail eligible. For those serving short sentences for minor nonviolent offenses, judges should grant time served or allow home confinement. Leaders in many states, including New Jersey, Cuyahoga County in Ohio, and New Orleans have begun necessary steps. Other jurisdictions should follow their lead.
We need to get all kids out of harm’s way, and that means getting them out of juvenile prisons, immigrant detention and any other correctional facility where we lock up children, immediately. There are more than 48,000 children incarcerated in the United States on any given day, some as young as 8, many for “status offenses” such as truancy or homelessness. There are already reported cases in many states of kids contracting covid-19 while locked up. Children must be released to their families or moved to safer settings.
We also need to take immediate action on behalf of seniors in state and federal prisons. In California, for example, 15.5 percent of people in prisons are over the age of 55, and the percentage of people in state prisons nationwide who are 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016. Misguided policies have normalized prison sentences longer than any other nation imposes, despite little public safety benefit and very high costs. All governors have commutation and clemency requests on their desks for seniors and very ill people. Elderly probationers and parolees have some of the lowest recidivism levels of all former inmates. Releasing such people poses very low public safety risks and will have a dramatic impact on preserving public health.
For four years I taught in a men’s medium-security state prison in Ohio, one that holds the most elderly prisoners in the state. I saw frail and ill men every day waiting to be seen by the nurses who worked there. Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine has made many swift and sensible moves to protect the people of his state in the face of this pandemic, and he should continue this by safely releasing the elderly and ill. Govs.Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew M. Cuomo of New York are responsible for two of the largest state prison systems in the country and could expedite release orders to protect the public health of thousands. Every governor should do so.
I know this decision will raise the question: What if someone who is released commits a crime? It is a question worth considering. As is this one: What if we do nothing and see death rates of prison workers and incarcerated people spike far above the national average? In rural communities, many with weak health-care systems, entire towns could be devastated as guards and their families overwhelm the local medical infrastructure. This is what public health officials say could happen. We have many systems in place to protect public safety and minimize the risk of releasing men, women and children, and no system for protecting public health inside, or around, overcrowded prisons, jails and detention centers.
We must prioritize public health. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill to fund state efforts to safely reduce correctional populations to cope with the pandemic. If our leaders are serious about avoiding the worst-case scenarios that attend this virus, we must get our people out of jails and prisons. Today.