Penology . . . has become torture and foolishness, a waste of money and a cause of crime . . . a blotting out of sight and heightening of social anxiety.
— Author Paul Goodman
EVEN before the deadly Covid-19 began to sweep through our prisons and correctional facilities, I already saw the storm coming. Knowing how are jails are jammed with inmates double and even quadruple its capacity, we knew our county’s prisons, with thousands of prisoners, wouldn’t allow for social distancing to control the coronavirus’ spread. So, back in March, I had already posed the question: How could they get as many people as possible out of there quickly?
In the City of Manila, prison officials have had similar conversations. The pandemic “distilled to its essence (how) we think about the use of jail, so is it worth putting somebody in jail if you thought that they were at risk of getting Covid?”
As we feared, crowded jails and prisons are proving to be deadly. By now we have recorded several cases and some deaths have been documented among people incarcerated in our prisons.
As cases surged, public health experts amplified a long-standing, unfulfilled demand of criminal justice reform advocates: Lock fewer people up. Because of the virus, such de-carceration efforts should make speedy progress.
Nationwide, jail populations should be lessened. For a fact, most of our jails primarily hold people charged with crimes but not yet convicted. Overcrowding persists, and advocates are urging reductions.
Prison and jail outbreaks also heighten the inequality of Covid-19’s burden. Poor people are incarcerated at higher rates than the rich and they tend to get longer sentences, and people who are incarcerated have higher rates of underlying health conditions that predispose them to severe Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the safety of people in prisons is entangled with that of the surrounding community. The virus can travel back and forth with employees (infections have been documented among prison staff) and with people held for short jail stays or transferred between facilities.
“If we care about the community rates (of Covid-19), then we have to care about prisons and jails.
And to reduce prison populations, the transfer of people who would normally move from jail to prison after sentencing should be halted. The sentences of inmates who are deemed medically vulnerable or were nearing the end of their sentences should likewise be commuted, aside from ramping up mental health care, addiction treatment and other services that ultimately divert people from prisons.
Furthermore, decades of criminology research suggest many inmates can be released with minimal risk of recidivism. But the fear of releasing even one person who might commit a crime helps explain why researchers have had little opportunity to study the effects of rapid, large-scale de-carceration before the pandemic.
There’s no evidence so far that pandemic-inspired releases have raised crime rates. But a potential downside of the de-carceration points out that people released from prison already struggle to access medical care, addiction treatment and other supports for their re-entry into society.