Before the coronavirus pandemic, an increasing number of people were coming to the realization that prisons were over-crowded, that over-incarceration was itself a critical societal problem, and that the half-century “civil war on crime” was both ill-conceived and racially discriminatory. Too many people were doing too much time. Now, the global reach of Covid-19 and its exponentially more lethal reach in prisons has added vital urgency to the importance of addressing the overarching problem of over-incarceration.
For a small minority of federal prisoners, “compassionate relief” offers an emergency exit from institutions already ablaze with the virus. Here in Connecticut, for example, the Office of the Federal Defender and its dedicated attorneys, paralegals, investigators and staff are working exhaustively to obtain judicial orders releasing vulnerable inmates. For the many, however, they can only endure: exposed to the same risks and dangers of illness and death that have led to a shutdown of society and social distancing that is not possible in their prison environments.
And “the numbers,” as epidemiologists often say, are horrifying. The United States, the global epicenter of the virus and resulting deaths, has more than two million inmates. As tallied by the UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars project, to date – and the total increases daily and the data is incomplete – there have been at least 21,007 cases among the incarcerated, with 295 confirmed dead and 8,754 cases among correctional staff with 34 confirmed deaths . Given the lack of social distancing in correctional settings, with thousands of facilities spread across the nation and almost 200,000 inmates older than 55, the numbers will be grim indeed. Reportedly, eight of the ten biggest virus outbreaks have occurred in jails and prisons.
Mass incarceration and needlessly long prison sentences are themselves a public health problem. In the short term, it must be, as exemplified by the heroic efforts of the federal defenders in Connecticut and their colleagues across the nation, all hands on deck to fill the lifeboats. Longer term, the reality and inherent injustice of over incarceration illuminated by the Covid-19 pandemic must move society to declare a truce on the war on crime and the taking of millions of prisoners of war. We can hope that some good will emerge from this developing disaster.