By Jac Arande-Colwill
When the pandemic took hold in 2020, advocates called for lawmakers and corrections leaders to reduce the number of people behind bars in order to help stem the virus’s spread. People in congregate settings—like jails and prisons, where infection already runs rampant and healthcare is lacking—have been among the most at risk of exposure since COVID-19 began to spread. But instead of swiftly and effectively releasing people, far too many lawmakers and corrections leaders left those behind bars in dangerous conditions.
“I was supposed to be let out on elder parole, prop 57, but I was denied during the pandemic,” someone incarcerated at New Folsom Prison in California wrote to PrisonPandemic. “These people administration here, fill themselves about the laws and fly right in the face of justice!” PrisonPandemic is filled with accounts of those denied release and left without adequate resources while COVID-19 has raged behind bars, disproportionately harming and killing people inside.
Everyone’s well-being relies on the well-being of those most at risk of sickness and harm, like people held in jails and prisons. That’s why the American Public Health Association recommends decarcerating and diverting from locking people up. And despite urgent calls from experts to release people during the pandemic—and the evidence to back up decarceration’s lifesaving effects—governments and correctional institutions have neglected to do what is necessary for everyone’s health and safety: release more people, broadly and in a sustained way.
The reluctance to release people reflects a pro-incarceration standpoint that attempts to tie releases to crime. This misrepresentation has fueled a political backlash to decarceration (like in New York, where system actors and media have blamed bail reform for an increase in crime). But the releases that have happened over the pandemic have demonstrated improvements to health and safety—far from the opposite. In New York City, people released from jail in March and April 2020 were re-arrested at lower rates than normal. In New Jersey—the only state that actually passed legislation to release people during the pandemic—the recidivism rate similarly dropped. And multiple studies suggest that decarceration and crime do not necessarily have a relationship. For one, recent crime data is too unreliable to draw conclusions.
Vera research has shown that jail and prison populations decreased by 14 percent nationwide at the beginning of the pandemic. But releases actually decreased over time afterward. Parole boards granted fewer releases and, alarmingly, fewer people were released from prisons overall in 2020 than in 2019. The way releases were carried out also showed disparities. Women experienced significantly larger drops in incarceration rates than men, and eligibility criteria in certain places—like Arkansas—deepened racial inequity, with white people benefiting disproportionately from early release. By the winter of 2021 and into 2022, most release efforts had reversed or stalled, with jail and prison populations rebounding toward or surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
This is the chilling yet unsurprising state of things, given that jails and prisons are at odds with public health.
“It’s just not possible to create an environment in a jail or prison that can control a virus like this. Decarceration is the only possible response,” said Sandhya Kajeepeta, former Vera research associate. “Even if you remove COVID-19 from the calculus, these are just not environments that promote health, and there’s no way to turn them into environments that [are].”
Instead of prioritizing public health and pursuing substantial decarceration efforts, most DOCs and lawmakers have taken a “treat the symptoms” approach, responding to crises reactively and lagging when infection rates have shifted and accelerated. Even efforts like New Jersey’s are wanting; the law that allowed certain people to be released early lapsed when the state’s official public health emergency expired in October 2021. It was reinstated in January 2022 only after the Omicron variant had already significantly swept through facilities. These kinds of emergency policies have acted as a trigger response that can be switched on or off. But this misses the point: there can be no such thing as true public health and safety unless we move away from incarceration.
“Prison is not a solution for public safety and only exacerbates the devastation of the pandemic,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director for Vera and MILPA’s Restoring Promise initiative. “When incarcerated, people are warehoused in cramped, inhumane conditions that lack basic human dignity standards. In contrast, home is where people find community, where they find opportunity to have their needs met. Home is the best place to fight the spread of COVID-19.”
The relatively higher number of releases in early 2020 demonstrated that we can decarcerate and keep people safe in the process—lowering reliance on jails and prisons, stabilizing families and communities, and protecting against COVID-19 without increasing crime. Those advocating against decarceration have scapegoated people who have suffered incarceration, promoting misinformation and fearmongering and refusing to reckon with what we know: incarceration is harmful.
“After 26 plus years in this darkness, it has all been a pandemic in my eyes,” wrote someone incarcerated in Vacaville, California.
Lawmakers and corrections leaders need to prioritize releasing people from jails and prisons—in an equitable and sustained way—both through the continued pandemic and in the future. And we should refuse the bare minimum, because the bare minimum permits death. Our health is our safety, and decarceration is a necessary part of achieving it.
Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice