As the days passed in March 2020, it quickly became clear that COVID-19 was a force to be reckoned with. While many of us transitioned to working from home, began wearing masks, and left urban areas for places with more space, one group of people was forced to live in cramped quarters with poor ventilation and inadequate medical care.
In the United States, incarcerated people are more likely to have multiple pre-existing health conditions, and live in extremely close and often overcrowded quarters that make social distancing impossible. Pre-existing conditions can increase the risk of severity of COVID-19, and these factors combined with sub-par medical care have resulted in incarcerated people contracting and dying from COVID-19 at rates significantly higher than the general population.
Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 3,000 incarcerated people have died from COVID-19. According to The Marshall Project, approximately 30% of people in state prisons contracted the virus in 2020, and as of April 2021, nearly 40% of people in federal prisons have been infected. However, widespread testing was not available in most jails and prisons throughout the first two years of the pandemic, and testing and reporting from facilities have been inconsistent since the summer of 2021. These factors have hindered data collection, and experts agree that these numbers significantly undercount the full impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people.
In the face of widespread airborne transmission, the CDC’s guidelines to control the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers have been insufficient. Some facilities moved to release certain groups of people at the start of the pandemic in an effort to reduce its impact, but it wasn't enough. While more than 100,000 people were released from state and federal prisons between March and June 2020, mixed messaging from the Bureau of Prisons on who was eligible for release caused widespread confusion. This resulted in a lack of cohesion; practices and procedures varied by facility, and policies changed from one day to the next, meaning many people who should have been released were not. Within the first three months of the pandemic alone, more than 10,000 people in the federal prison system moved to apply for compassionate release, a program that permits early release for people who are elderly, ill, or have served the majority of their sentence. Yet 98% of compassionate release petitions were ignored or denied without explanation, and some who had their petitions granted were not released in a timely manner and contracted COVID-19.
The criminal legal system has repeatedly shown an unparalleled disregard for human life. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola designated Camp J as their quarantine unit, where incarcerated people are moved for COVID-19 isolation. There have been reports of people being sent to Camp J for disciplinary reasons, implying that either the conditions in Camp J are so inhumane that being sent there is considered punishment, or decision makers are attempting to infect incarcerated people with COVID-19 as a form of disciplinary action.
Even before the pandemic, it was widely publicized that the conditions of incarceration are inherently inhospitable to human life and well-being. Decarceration is the only way to keep people safe in future public health crises. We now know definitively that outbreaks in detention centers were not limited to those complexes - they increased rates of infection in surrounding communities. Researchers estimate that an 80% reduction in the country's incarcerated population could have prevented millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths nationwide.
By keeping people who would be sentenced to incarceration in their communities, they remain connected to their support systems and people who can hold them accountable. Outcomes from maintaining access to wraparound social services consistently outperform incarceration in addressing issues like substance use, mental health disorders, and sex offenses. Decarceration would allow us to reinvest massive amounts of money in social services that are proven to improve quality of life and reduce poverty. We as a society must take action immediately to propose, fund, and utilize any and all alternatives to incarceration.
About the Author
Zoe Johnson (she/her) recently completed her MSW with a focus in Policy Practice at CSSW. Zoe completed fieldwork for the 2021-2022 school year at the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans, LA, and she is looking forward to supporting her community through her work after graduating.