Friday, March 20, 2020

Controlavirus: Incarceration Nation Will Lockdown Its Prisons and "Sacrifice" Its Prisoners

nakedcapitalism |  JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Could you summarize some of the prison conditions that facilitate COVID-19 spread?

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are so densely populated, and it is impossible for people in custody to keep a social distance from each other. There are usually two or more people in a small, shared cell and oftentimes there are large dormitories. There are shared open toilets and sinks, often part of a single fixture, and often located adjacent to the bunkbeds. The chow hall has shared tables and long lines, with food doled out cafeteria-style by incarcerated workers.  Lines are everywhere inside a facility: the pill line; the commissary line; the line for showers. Work assignments involve close contact with fellow workers. There are lots of group activities: school, vocational training, programs, recreation. In short, unless you are in solitary confinement (which is incredibly harsh and definitely something to be avoided), you are in constant close proximity to lots of other people.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: More than 2 million prisoners are incarcerated in the US. Yet prisoners are not the only potential victims of prison spread. COVID-19 will also hurt prison staff, who will further spread infections back into their wider communities. What can you tell us about these risks?

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are already facing lots of staffing challenges, with many facilities severely understaffed and with high turnover rates. Staff are usually poorly paid, and many have difficult working conditions.

Of course, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between staff and prisoners, and once the virus is in the facility, it will affect everyone regardless of their position.
With this new challenge, we need to make sure that staff are protected as well as people in custody.  And we certainly need to make sure that they are not coming to work if they are sick, because the consequences could be disastrous.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: I understand that reducing the prison population is one policy that can mitigate potential COVID-19 consequences, both keeping people from entering the system, and accelerating release of existing prisoners. Please tell me a bit more about this.

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are at especially high risk for the spread of COVID-19, because they are so densely populated and there is little ability to implement social distancing strategies. When (not if) the virus hits these facilities, it will spread like wildfire, with disastrous consequences.Thus it is urgent for all places of detention to immediately reduce the number of people who are incarcerated, both to make social distancing a bit easier and also so that incarceration doesn’t mean a death sentence for people in custody who have little ability to protect themselves in these circumstances.

There are two ways to reduce the population. Think of these institutions as bathtubs. First, we have to turn off the spigot, to reduce the number of people entering the facilities; and second, we have to open the drain, to accelerate releases of people who are already incarcerated.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: What is being done across the country to reduce the number of people entering the prison system? I know some jurisdictions are increasing pre-trial release, particularly for non-violent offenses and other low-risk prisoners, and Fox reports that Philadelphia is now delaying arrests, Philadelphia police to delay arrests for certain non-violent crimes.

MICHELE DEITCH: Experts and advocates around the country are correctly urging law enforcement officials to limit the number of arrests, and wherever possible, issue citations in lieu of arrest. No one who is medically vulnerable or pregnant should be brought to the jail. People charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors should not be brought to the jail’s booking area unless they present a serious risk to public safety. Each person who comes into the jail is a potential vector for transmission of the virus. Beyond that, warrants for minor offenses should be suspended. Probation and parole should not be revoked for technical violations of conditions. And anyone charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies, and those presenting little risk to the community, should be released on personal bonds. All people sitting in the jail because they can’t raise money for bond should have their cases reviewed immediately.