Bozelko column: It’s the prisons and jails, stupid
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the COVID-19 surges we’re experiencing couldn’t have been prevented. Many culprits hide behind the climbing curves, but insisting on keeping people locked up during a pandemic is probably why we’re canceling school again, closing restaurants to all but takeout, banning indoor activities, suppressing economic rebound and traumatizing our children.
Each state that’s suffering wild infection rates now also failed to heed the warning that not letting people out of prisons and jails would spread infection later. The 10 states that decarcerated the most according to a report card from the Prison Policy Initiative - Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont - are among the ones that have made the most significant gains in controlling community transmission.
The states with the biggest COVID-19 booms - California, Florida, Texas - all delayed and even dismissed decarceration. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blocked mitigation efforts in his state’s prisons in late March. So did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said “I don’t see how in a time of pandemic where people are on edge already (that) releasing felons in society would make a whole lot of sense.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom wasn’t opposed to release but he wasn’t bold about it either; he’s let approximately 10,000 inmates dribble out over the last few months. The pandemic forced his hand, though; his office announced that an additional 8,000 prisoners will spill into society by next month because infection control in San Quentin State Prison is impossible now.
In fairness, I acknowledge that almost all states flunked for how they tried to flatten curves inside. Only a few earned some form of a D; none of them made a C, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s analysis.
But the failing states that are flailing now also haven’t been on their mask distribution game. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice didn’t distribute them to inmates, says Prison Policy. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claims to have done so but employees dispute this, and we don’t even know what the Florida Department of Corrections did; there’s no information. During this crisis, that opacity is alarming.
This didn’t have to happen. We warned you. I sent up a flare for the Surgeon General, who can release anyone during an emergency. He didn’t notice. Author Piper Kerman wrote to wardens in the Washington Post, “Our nation’s prisons and jails will soon become uncontrollable super spreaders of this pandemic, and the reach will extend beyond the walls and barbed wire fences.” Many ignored her. CNN host and Reform Alliance CEO Van Jones pleaded with correctional facilities to give out masks. But at least eight states refused.
The ACLU commissioned a study that foretold an additional 100,000 deaths if sheriffs didn’t free their people from jails. Since the organization tweeted it on April 22, it’s gotten a timid 337 likes and 221 comments and retweets, but it needed to go viral to save us from a deadly virus. Hardheaded Twitterati questioned whether it was a good idea, forgetting the fact that 54% of the jail population is released every week anyway, according to Prison Policy.
On July 14 the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released a new epidemiological model predicting 224,089 deaths from COVID-19 by Nov. 1. That’s only about 90,000 more deaths than we have right now. The ACLU had it right.
Critics blame the releases that did happen for crime spiking around the country. But in New York City, 576 people of 4,500 released from Rikers Island have been re-arrested, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Six arrests were for murder and 35 were for weapon possession, making 41 out of 576 - or 7% - worrisome cases; only 1% resulted in another’s death. It’s no solace to victims or their families, I know. But it’s still low enough for me to approve of measures that will save hundreds of thousands of people.
I’m not sure if there’s much of a catch-up play left, although California is trying it. Unless the Golden State has resources to provide another two weeks of quarantine for the 8,000 people coming home this month, I don’t know that this last purge won’t be too late.
If you’re searching for ways to change the pandemic’s course, there’s an obvious place to look. To paraphrase political strategist James Carville, it’s the prisons and jails, stupid. Next time we tell you to release people, listen. This isn’t some leftist pablum. It’s how we’re going to survive.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.