PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — Incarceration is a form of punishment utilized across the globe for those accused of crimes. As incarceration rates grow, a rise in intervention strategies should follow. Incarceration can have detrimental effects on individuals and communities which cannot afford to be exasperated by COVID-19.
The Impact of Mass Incarceration
A rise in the incarcerated population does not necessarily mean a rise in crime rates. In most cases, mass incarceration is powered by policy, rather than criminal activity. Studies show that there is not a correlation between incarceration and crime rates. As of 2020, it is estimated that more than 11 million individuals are incarcerated. The United States, China and Brazil have the highest rate of those incarcerated per capita.
Prison powers the cycle of poverty. Imprisonment removes primary earners from families and reduces overall lifetime earnings. In households where there may only be one working member, an incarcerated breadwinner puts them at a greater disadvantage and ultimately greater risk for lasting poverty. Those who have been incarcerated have an increased difficulty finding employment and gaining access to other public benefits. When obstructed by poverty, some may undergo desperate measures to survive, leading to more criminal involvement.
The Threat of COVID-19
In a world with COVID-19, efforts must be made to mitigate disease spread in correctional settings. The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised that “the global effort to tackle the spread of disease may fail without proper attention to infection control measures within prisons.” A global health concern requires a global response that includes an action for those incarcerated.
Correctional institutions are a hot spot for pandemic spread. Facilities across the globe report high rates of prison overcrowding, which severely stunts the ability to maintain proper hygiene, health, safety, food and other basic human needs. Due to inadequate resources, the ability to follow hygiene and sanitation recommendations is significantly obstructed. Prisons are also halted in their ability to perform their ideal function: rehabilitation.
During a pandemic, social distancing is nearly impossible. Those incarcerated have higher rates of poor health and underlying medical conditions than the rest of the population, which puts them at a greater risk of health complications during a pandemic. With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting those in poverty, the added damage of incarceration continues to enable the cycle of poverty.
Countries are reporting hundreds of COVID-19 cases and deaths in their correctional facilities. Countries are tackling the threat of COVID-19 in correctional facilities in different ways. In China, after enough reported cases, prisons were placed on lockdown, meaning everyone was obligated to remain in their cell until further notice. In France, courts have delayed short-term sentences.
Other countries have taken steps to decarcerate the prison population. In Kenya and Iran, people were decarcerated through emergency releases. Ghana has also opted to decarcerate its prison population through emergency releases, while also enrolling 90% of those incarcerated in a national healthcare initiative and investing more medical personnel at correctional facilities.
In many cases, releases are limited to those who are older, ill or low-level offenders. While this may release many, it fails to acknowledge the highest population of those incarcerated, which are those who have not yet been convicted. For example, in many Latin American countries, more than 70% of the incarcerated population are those awaiting trial. A failure to pay bail should not prohibit the release of individuals. Expanding release orders to those in pretrial, who would not pose a serious threat to community safety, would help decrease mass incarceration and keep communities safe from disease spread.
REFORM Alliance is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization in the U.S. that aims to reduce the number of those affected by the criminal justice system through policy reform. After receiving a sizable donation from Jack Dorsey and his Start Small Initiative, REFORM Alliance has been providing COVID-19 protection to correctional facilities. The goal is to provide resources and protection to every prison and jail in the U.S. As of August 2020, REFORM Alliance has distributed more than six million protective masks in jails and prisons across the country. This resulted in millions of incarcerated people having protective equipment during a pandemic.
REFORM Alliance also created a campaign called SAFER which outlined safe recommendations for releasing incarcerated people. These recommendations included suspending incarceration as a punishment for technical violations, release those who qualify for parole and adopting safe alternatives to in-person supervision times. As a result of these recommendations being implemented, more than 70,000 individuals have been released.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken action to ensure those incarcerated are given priority in receiving the vaccine. Carceral settings have been hot spots for virus spread and have a death rate of three times the non-incarcerated population. The ACLU is advocating for those incarcerated by holding political officials accountable with legal litigation if prioritization is not taken for those in custodial settings.
Continuing the Support
There is hope for those who are incarcerated. Anyone can get involved by supporting efforts that send supplies to incarcerated facilities and reduce incarceration populations. Incarceration is impactful on both an individual and a societal basis. Continued support for better incarceration conditions and efforts to decarcerate during and after this pandemic is a necessity. Custodial punishment is too often used as a first response. Instead, other methods should be utilized to lower incarceration rates and ultimately end an unnecessary ingredient to the cycle of poverty exasperated by COVID-19.
– Megan Marie Owens