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