The U.S. Prison System Poses a Public Health Threat | Sojourners

The U.S. Prison System Poses a Public Health Threat

FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen outside of Rikers Island, where multiple cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, in Queens, New York City, March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

While many adjust to a new normal of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, others are sounding the alarm, warning of the vulnerability of those in America’s prisons and jails.

“If I’m not speaking for the least and the last — and a large group of those are incarcerated people — then who will speak for them?” Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Seattle, told Sojourners. “My solidarity most certainly must be attached to those who are most vulnerable.”

Brown is one of hundreds of faith and community leaders across the country calling on state departments of corrections and counties to decarcerate — to reduce the number of people in custody. The system of incarceration presents a unique challenge to heeding the advice of health professionals. COVID-19 spreads most easily among those who are in close proximity with each other and high-congregant places. This is why 38 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have enacted stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders as of April 2, and why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends groups of 10 or more not meet.

Following these guidelines, or any guidelines relating to hygiene, is incredibly difficult for prisons and jails. Those who are incarcerated are not allowed hand sanitizer (due to its alcohol content) and often have to pay for extra soap. They sleep in the same room as their toilets and often in bunk rooms that make 6-foot physical distancing recommendations difficult.

For some advocates, biblical understandings of justice and equity demand that the immediate concern for public health include the incarcerated.

Brown cited Isaiah 40:4, saying she sees the words “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” as a call for equity.

“In my mind, the Hebrew text is trying to have us consider that there has to be this sense of equity — not equality, but equity — that pervades who we are as a community, as a nation, and as a world,” Brown said. “God was consistently, through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, trying to weave the story of: You need to care for those who are most vulnerable.”

Many legal experts, politicians, and prison administrators say they agree that there is a need to reduce prison and jail populations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. King County, the largest county in Washington, has reduced their jail population by over 30 percent, but some legal advocates say more can be done.

Columbia Legal Services, an advocacy group in Washington, sent a letter on March 16 — co-signed by 13 other advocacy groups across the state, including the Washington ACLU — urging Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Stephen Sinclair to take more action on prison and jail population reductions.

Columbia Legal Services later filed a lawsuit against Inslee on behalf of a group of incarcerated people asking him to use executive powers to release those who are pregnant, people with underlying medical issues, and those over 50 — the populations most at risk, according to health organizations. The lawsuit also requests the immediate release of people within 18 months of the end of their sentence to help prisons practice physical distancing.

“The DOC Secretary can exercise his authority to release people on furlough, extraordinary medical placement, or graduated reentry statute to release folks,” Nick Allen, an attorney and deputy director of advocacy for Columbia Legal Services, said. “The governor has broad authority through the emergency powers statute to direct the secretary to release people, to call the clemency and pardons board together."

He added, "Almost every other community within the state of Washington has been addressed with regards to COVID-19 … and that has not occurred within the prison system.”

The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to hear the lawsuit and granted a motion for accelerated review.

Jaime Hawk, Washington ACLU’s legal strategy director, said their efforts to decarcerate are based in part on the system’s current challenges to provide trial in the age of COVID-19.

“The vast majority of folks sitting in our jails right now are detained pretrial — they have not been convicted of a crime, they’re simply waiting for their trial date,” Hawk said. “In the era of the [COVID-19 pandemic] courts have really scaled back and shut down most hearings, trial dates are being kicked way out into late April.”

Allen says they wouldn’t be making the requests for release if they didn’t believe it was both possible and necessary. Other states could serve as an example for Washington, as some have begun the process of expedited parole or clemency, often for nonviolent offenders.

Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles began reviewing the potential for clemency release of incarcerated people within 180 days of release for nonviolent offenses. California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is expediting parole release for those incarcerated on nonviolent offenses with less than 60 days left on their sentence. The department estimates up to 3,500 incarcerated persons may be eligible for expedited transition.

Hannah Bowman, founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, says this exercise of decarceration can be a step toward a better system.

“We say [American prisons are] about public safety, but what they’re really about is retribution and banishment, and that’s becoming particularly clear in this COVID-19 crisis,” Bowman said. “Public health is a part of public safety, and what we're hearing is that having people in prison is a major public health threat to them.”

For Bowman, the effort to decarcerate is based on her faith, pointing to the salvific work of Christ, who brings an end to retribution and emphasizes restoration in justice.

In general, Allen and Hawk both said the special circumstance contributes to their overall goals to end mass incarceration.

“We've made a bit of progress, but we still have a long way to go … [we are thinking] ‘how can we sustain some of this progress,’” Hawk said. “We’re always thinking about how to dismantle mass incarceration in our state.”

While the current priority is the safety of the vulnerable, they agreed that this presents an opportunity for the justice system to rethink sentencing in general.

“As we’ve seen with a lot of different aspects of life over the past few weeks, it’s really in our face the inequities that exist within our system,” Allen said. “When something like this hits, we start to realize even more this is a bad policy, this is a bad practice, this is not only harming [incarcerated people] significantly, but it's harming every one of us.”