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December 15, 2020

Prison Policy Initiative reports on "Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread"

Gregory Hooks and Wendy Sawyer with the Prison Policy Initiative has authored this important new report titled "Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread." The full report is today's must-read, and here are parts of its introduction and conclusion:

In 2020, a decades-long American policy failure — mass incarceration — collided with a brand new American policy failure: the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. After decades of needlessly locking up ever more people in jails and prisons, state and federal lawmakers now faced a public health disaster if they were unable to decarcerate quickly. In this report, we show that the persistent overuse of incarceration — despite decades of evidence of its inefficacy and harms — has had serious consequences. Mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases, not just inside correctional facilities, but in the communities and counties that surround them.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus, putting incarcerated people and staff at serious risk once the novel coronavirus entered facilities. Officials across the country ignored the threat for too long, perhaps imagining that confined populations would be too isolated from the outside world to contract the virus. But the boundaries between life “inside” and surrounding communities are actually quite porous, with staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors constantly flowing in and out of correctional facilities — not to mention the frequent turnover and transfers of incarcerated people themselves....

This report outlines our initial findings so that they may be immediately useful to policymakers and advocates; the full study, which includes an analysis of nursing homes and ICE facilities, will be published by co-author Gregory Hooks separately. In addition, we have compiled Appendix tables with more detailed state and local data. In brief, however, we find that:

  1. COVID-19 caseloads grew more quickly over the summer of 2020 in nonmetro counties with more people incarcerated.
  2. COVID-19 caseloads grew much more quickly over the summer of 2020 among counties in multicounty economic areas with more people incarcerated.
  3. Mass incarceration added to COVID-19 caseloads in multicounty economic areas and states. Nationally, this impact reached a tragic scale: Mass incarceration added more than a half million cases in just three months....

The number of people in prisons and jails has led to more COVID-19 cases, among those working or confined in these facilities and among those who simply live near them. As documented here, the number of new COVID-19 infections over the summer of 2020 was greater in counties and multicounty areas with larger and more concentrated incarcerated populations. In total, we estimate that mass incarceration led to 560,000 additional COVID-19 cases nationwide in just three months....

What is needed immediately, at the policy level, is an increased use of clemency, parole expansion, and other legal mechanisms to depopulate prisons and stop the virus from spreading behind bars.  But there is a greater need over the long term: a profound rethinking of how we use incarceration in this country.  It has never been more obvious that locking up millions of people in crowded and unsanitary conditions is harmful — not only for those who are locked up, but for people outside prisons as well.  With the pandemic dragging on, our ability to radically reduce our use of incarceration is now a life or death matter.  If lawmakers cannot make swift changes to reduce correctional populations and keep them low, we should expect that more COVID-19 outbreaks — and more deaths — in prisons and the communities that surround them are still to come.

December 15, 2020 at 09:14 AM | Permalink

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