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December 4, 2020

More terrific work on persistent carceral problems from the Prison Policy Initiative

Regular readers are surelty familiar with all my posts highlighting the curring-edge research and analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, and this week PPI released two more important new reports on pressing and persistent prison and jail problems:

By Emily Widra, "As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, state prisons and local jails have failed to mitigate the risk of infection behind bars." Excerpt:

[M]ore than eight months after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, prisons and jails have generally failed to reduce their populations enough to protect the health and lives of those who are incarcerated.  While state prison populations have slowly declined from pre-pandemic levels, the pace of these modest reductions has slowed since the spring, even as national infection rates continue to rise.  And county jails — which made promising reductions in the spring — have failed to sustain those reforms....

Since July, 77% of the jails in our sample had population increases, suggesting that the early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned.  For example, by mid-April, the Philadelphia city jail population reportedly dropped by more than 17% after city police suspended low-level arrests and judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” jailed for “low-level charges.”  But on May 1st — as the pandemic raged on — the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts. Similarly, on July 10th, the sheriff of Jefferson County, Alabama, announced that the jail would limit admissions to only “violent felons that cannot make bond.”  That effort was quickly abandoned when the jail resumed normal admission operations just one week later.  The increasing jail populations across the country suggest that after the first wave of responses to COVID-19, many local officials have allowed jail admissions to return to business as usual.

On the other hand, state prison populations have continued to decline, but not quickly or significantly enough to slow the spread of COVID-19. Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and increased health care requirements.  For example, although California has reduced the state prison population by about 20% since January, the number of large COVID-19 outbreaks in California state prisons suggests that the population reduction needs to be much more drastic.  In fact, as of November 18th, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 105% of their design capacity.

By Emily Widra, "No escape: The trauma of witnessing violence in prison."  An excerpt:

Early this year — before COVID-19 began to tear through U.S. prisons — five people were killed in Mississippi state prisons over the course of one week.  A civil rights lawyer reported in February that he was receiving 30 to 60 letters each week describing pervasive “beatings, stabbings, denial of medical care, and retaliation for grievances” in Florida state prisons. That same month, people incarcerated in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts filed a lawsuit documenting allegations of abuse at the hands of correctional officers, including being tased, punched, and attacked by guard dogs.

While these horrific stories received some media coverage, the plague of violence behind bars is often overlooked and ignored. And when it does receive public attention, a discussion of the effects on those forced to witness this violence is almost always absent.  Most people in prison want to return home to their families without incident, and without adding time to their sentences by participating in further violence.  But during their incarceration, many people become unwilling witnesses to horrific and traumatizing violence, as brought to light in a February publication by Professors Meghan Novisky and Robert Peralta.

In their study — one of the first studies on this subject — Novisky and Peralta interview recently incarcerated people about their experiences with violence behind bars.  They find that prisons have become “exposure points” for extreme violence that undermines rehabilitation, reentry, and mental and physical health. Because this is a qualitative (rather than quantitative) study based on extensive open-ended interviews, the results are not necessarily generalizable. However, studies like this provide insight into individual experiences and point to areas in need of further study.

December 4, 2020 at 09:59 AM | Permalink

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