COVID-19 Forces Reductions in Prison Populations

COVID-19 Forces Reductions in Prison Populations – Jeffrey Lichtman – https://jeffreylichtman.com/



Jeffrey Lichtman

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prisons and jails were quickly labeled as hotspots where the novel coronavirus could spread easily. By September 2020, over 120,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in jails and prisons in the U.S. So far, about 1000 deaths have been recorded within these populations.

Soon after the outbreak, prison directors knew they had to think of ways to allow for social distancing and mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. This started a series of conversations that challenged the way people think about the prison system, and citing the potential to shrink prison and jail populations nationwide.

Between March and June, jails saw approximately a 25% decrease in their populations through consorted efforts to protect stop the spread of COVID-19. Studies show that within this same time frame, prison populations dropped by about 8% nationwide.


Nationwide Reduction Efforts

In order to stop the spread of coronavirus in prisons and jails, state and local governments were forced to consider reforms that had been on the table for years. Some of these efforts have been made through conditioned releases, or from delays in incarceration due to overall slow-down of the justice system.

COVID-19 restrictions in municipal systems, such as courts temporarily shutting down, slowed the flow of inmates from jails to prisons. States like California, Colorado, Illinois, and Oklahoma halted this transition altogether. Other states’ governors have commuted the sentences of inmates who are part of the medically vulnerable population, known to be much more susceptible to the dangers of coronavirus. They did the same for inmates whose sentences were close to being over. These efforts helped to reduce some virus transmission within prisons. However, sanitation still proved to be a problem for those still incarcerated.

Researchers are still attempting to track the effects these measures have had on the transmission of COVID-19 within prisons. Naturally, studies thus far have shown that the jails and prisons who reduced their populations in the wake of coronavirus saw lower rates of infection than those at 100% capacity. However, now that inmates are being released in small waves to prevent the additional spread of the virus, experts are looking into how these releases will affect public safety in communities. While the unprecedented outbreak of coronavirus was the push that brough these changes about, prison reformists have been asking for changes of this magnitude for many years. What remains to be seen is how these shifts will work in practice.


Possible Effects of Decarceration

Like with any largescale structural change, the rapid release of inmates have brought on new challenges. Back in their communities, ex-inmates often do not have access to medical care and addition treatment that they had while incarcerated. During a global pandemic, losing access to such resources could be more harmful than it would be upon a regular release. Ordinarily, re-entry to society is planned and prepared, but COVID-19 has forced rapid changes that leave potentially crucial nuances overlooked or ignored.

Some states anticipated this issue and offered support. In California, the governor joined forces with various philanthropic groups to offer aid to recently released prisoners. It included $30 million to help offer quarantine housing, health care, transportation assistance, and other vital service to help people being released. Many California non-profit organizations have also been helping inmates during their rapid releases.

Newly-released individuals had much less time than they normally would to make a parole plan for their release. Many were sent to hotels after getting out to quarantine, with rising worries of community spread from those being let out. The state wasn’t able to mandate that people released fully quarantine, but putting them up in hotels as a designated space was one way help them to do so.


Looking Ahead

With the entire nation adjusting to the pandemic and striving to find a new normal, the question remains of how prison operations will continue to change. The conversation will no doubt continue about low-level offenders and their place in prisons, as well as inmates with vulnerable health statuses or those coming to the end of their terms.

Reformers are fighting for a continued trend toward lower incarceration numbers, both for the sake of coronavirus safety and to maintain the progress they have seen these past few months. However, it is currently unclear if these changes will remain in a post-pandemic landscape, as courts return to normal operations and sentences likely increase.


COVID-19 Forces Reductions in Prison Populations – Jeffrey Lichtman – https://jeffreylichtman.com/

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