It’s Past Time to Reevaluate Our Love Affair with Incarceration

Even though the coronavirus pandemic seems far from over, thoughtful people are already asking how it will change the lives of Americans in the years to come. Questions about the long-term economic, political, social and public health impacts prompt widely differing opinions and speculations. But what everyone seems to agree on is that it will change some things permanently—or at least until the next major crisis changes them again.

Let us hope that one long-lasting change addresses the policies, laws and attitudes within our society that has caused us to be labeled “The Incarceration Nation.” We need to reevaluate the who, the why and the for-how-long we incarcerate our fellow citizens and consider the lifetime collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.

A recent article in The Guardian had this arresting headline: “US jails will become death traps in the coronavirus pandemic.” News headlines sometimes wildly overstate what is often a more nuanced article. But there’s reason to believe this one is not an exaggeration. Our prisons by design lack transparency as well as medical resources. One can only imagine the explosion in cases around the country among contained populations with the inability to practice physical distancing.

The writers, Jean Casella and Katie Rose Quandt, work with Solitary Watch, a national watchdog group that documents conditions in US prisons and jails. The thrust of their argument is that the 3,100 city and county jails across America are, effectively, “petri dishes” that provide the optimal environment for the spread of a communicable disease like the coronavirus.

Unlike state and federal prisons, local jails see a massive inflow and outflow of our fellow citizens each month. Casella and Quandt cite a figure of 10 million jail admissions every year in America. Think of incarcerating every man, woman and child in a state as populous as New Jersey every year. Though many are not incarcerated for more than a month, 615,000 of those who are incarcerated on any given day—about 2.2 million people in total—are in a county or city jail.

The vast majority are “non-violent” criminals, but that label has many definitions and applications. A better term would be “low risk.” A white-collar person that steals the life savings of an elderly person on the day of release is technically “non-violent,” while the person of color who had one perhaps violent transgression decades earlier in the inner-city might not get that same consideration when it comes to qualifying for bail.

Around the country, we are experiencing a movement away from the status quo of granting bail for people who would benefit from addressing their criminogenic factors in the community by substance abuse treatment, clinical counseling and vocational training. Technical violations of parole supervision are better addressed with modified treatment related to conditions rather than a return to the systems that have only proven to foster criminality and expand criminal networks.

Advocates for criminal justice and sentencing reform have been pointing out these realities for many years and it is only fairly recently that governments have realized that resources allocated to incapacitation are not making societies safer and could be better spent on treatment modalities. But reform is a hard “sell” with those who are elected or appointed to represent society’s interests and public safety. Let’s face it, a “tough on crime platform” resonates with some of the electorate. And let us not mention the soft money provided legally behind the scenes from the prison industrial complex lobbies.

Today, however, the increasingly threatening reality of Covid-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) is finally forcing change. The danger posed by Covid-19 to the health of individuals behind bars is more than obvious. This is true as well for those employed by the jails. Casella and Quandt say that Los Angeles has already released about ten percent of those incarcerated in its jails. Officials in many other cities and counties are following suit. In addition, fewer people who would have been incarcerated in normal times are being sent to jail.

On Sunday March 29, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections announced the first case of Covid-19 in the state prison system, an inmate at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County. It is inevitable that more will follow. Here in Pike County the County Commissioners have just reported the first Covid-19 case in Pike County Correctional Facility (PCCF), an employee. Inmates who were in contact with the employee are now under quarantine. Other staff members who worked alongside the infected employee are self-isolating at home.

We understand that a process has begun here in Pike County to assess which inmates at PCCF could be released for Covid-19 related health reasons. While the District Attorney and probation officials will likely have the strongest voices in the determinations to be made, the Public Defender’s office as well as local defense counsel should also be heard in determining if someone is at risk to re-offend. Stringent conditions of bond may better accomplish justice related goals, leading to a win/win scenario. Let’s hope this process is also occurring at the front end of the system and the fundamental decision for remanding someone is solely based on flight risk or threat to the community.

If we are willing to have it, Covid-19 should push us to begin a serious conversation about the who, the why and the for-how-long we incarcerate our fellow citizens. If this public health emergency forces us to release some portion of those currently in jail, can we fairly ask why we incarcerated them in the first place? Out of crisis, comes opportunity, and Covid-19 might do more for the cause of criminal justice reform that advocates have been pressing for over the past decade.

Writen and Prepared by: Jack Donson and Hampton Morgan

Mr. Donson and Mr. Morgan are members of the Board of Directors of Choosing Integrity

Incarceration in America

Have you ever heard the term “decarceration?” My guess is probably not, at least unless you are a prison reform advocate or a family member who has experienced the American “justice” system. But I bet you have heard the term “incarceration” for sure! While I’m personally not a fan of the term decarceration, I am a firm believer in the underlying reasons this term has been coined.

The United States has a reputation throughout the world as the “Incarceration Nation.” We have approximately 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We are also one of the few countries that sentences juveniles to life in prison. (There has recently been some case law overturning that practice.)

While the American psyche has grown accustomed to the overuse of prisons, there has also been a bit of a wake-up call for families experiencing the justice system as it has ensnared more and more of their family and friends. I recently read Harvey Silverglate’s provocative book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. It is an eye opener about how many things in this country are illegal – so many, in fact, that no one really has any idea how many laws there are a person could be prosecuted for without even knowing they have broken the law. (Silverglate’s title implies that the average American could commit three felonies every day without even knowing it.)

(If you want to see an excellent chart of the state of incarceration in America today, visit this website.)

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some extremist advocating for the abolition of prisons. But I am screaming from the mountaintop about how our country has missed the mark on punishment and incapacitation. The origins of the prison population explosion have their root in the politically advantageous “truth in sentencing laws” of the 1980s, when most jurisdictions throughout the country abolished parole systems and mandated people serve approximately 85 percent of their prison term regardless of conduct, rehabilitation, or anything else. It is also suspicious that his happened at about the same time for-profit private prisons began to be used. Hmm.

While incarceration rates have started to decline, the infrastructure is still in place, mainly the prison industrial complex and their lobbies who argue for the status quo while they contribute tens of millions of dollars in their lobbying efforts. Not to mention, it’s still a great sound bite for a politician to opine about their tough-on-crime platform.

While incapacitation has been overused, the emphasis on correctional treatment has been reduced and academic research has concluded crime rates have not significantly decreased in light of the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on a yearly basis. What is even more disturbing is how the private corrections industry has expanded into all kinds of peripheral services such as telephone, video visitation and transportation – for which inmates and their families pay handsomely. Even local governments rely on these sources of revenue, along with federal government contracts to house immigration prisoners.

It is hard to say if the corner we have turned will continue to trend further but there are a lot of forces behind the scenes fighting to maintain the status quo. Most people will eventually be released from prison. So to truly make communities safer there must be a greater emphasis on treatment as well as developing more alternative diversionary programs such as residential (halfway in/halfway out) centers and day reporting centers, which include both training and treatment. There are dire lifetime collateral consequences for a conviction and these programs can work in conjunction with drug, mental health and veteran’s courts to avoid the stigma prior to the vicious cycle of arrest, release and repeat!

If you’d rather see some of these same points made in a compelling video, here it is:

Jack Donson




I’m stepping outside my comfort zone with the content of this blog post as I never write about local issues or personal experiences.

While I completely understand the general concept that “life is about choices,” I think this notion is often misunderstood and is used in a context lacking empathy and understanding. It reminds me of the mentality in this statement: “You get what you deserve.”

If you’ve never walked in someone’s shoes (that’s what empathy is) it’s wise to refrain from judgments and even wiser to realize that life is about growth and life is about healing — and not necessarily in that order.

Over my career I worked with thousands of inner-city, marginalized populations incarcerated in the federal prison system. Not a single individual I worked with chose to have cognitive deficiencies caused by being born of a crack-addicted mother or having to live in the poverty and violence of a New York City housing project.

I once knew a young man. Let’s call him John, who was raised in a stable, suburban family that emphasized values such as faith, honesty and integrity. John had all the needed emotional support; yet he was arrested at age 16, prosecuted in juvenile court and declared a “delinquent.” Fortunately, the local court had the resources and John was allowed to participate in a diversionary program in which he avoided a conviction and juvenile placement. The experience was a wake- up call and he went on to make better choices. He often tells people there was a fine line in his life where he could have had a life in and out of state prison rather than a career working in the Federal prison system.

To be honest, I’m John! My point is that if someone with family and court support could find themselves on that edge, I can’t even imagine how the truly traumatized cope in today’s world, given the deterioration of the family, domestic abuse, bullying and the rampant promotion of crystal meth, heroin and Fentanyl.

Rather than judge behavior and cheer for punishment, we need a better balance of treatment by identifying the underlying factors that led to the involvement with the justice system. We can then provide evidenced-based programs that are helpful for many in turning things around.

Rural communities like Pike County have been profoundly impacted by the drug epidemic, lack of employment opportunities but more importantly the lack of meaningful mentorship and diversionary programs and resources for our young adults. I am confident Choosing Integrity can be a positive force in our community to help young adults choose healing, growth and recovery so they can become productive members of their family and community.

Jack Donson