There has been a lot of talk during the coronavirus pandemic about the supposedly unthinkable things that are suddenly doable during a crisis of this magnitude. But it’s important to also talk about the things that many of our leaders still appear to think are off-limits. One of those is letting large—as in, truly large—numbers of people out of jail.
America’s prisons, jails, and detention centers are hellish even in normal times. They are centers for an obvious catastrophe during a global pandemic. Stories have been pouring in about the looming disaster inside American prisons. One snapshot of Rikers Island in New York City from testimony given to Brooklyn Defender Services includes: “Squalid conditions, including units that have not been sanitized, and staff who refuse to clean out of concern for their own exposure to COVID-19”; “Symptomatic people not being tested for COVID-19 or having their temperature checked”; “No precautions taken for people who were regularly in contact with a guard who is believed to have COVID-19 –even while people in that unit are now symptomatic”; and “Soap [being] unavailable, both because it is not being provided or replaced in the communal bathrooms and because it is sold out at commissary.” The spread of coronavirus inside Rikers is estimated at seven times higher than the rest of New York City. It is, in short, a nightmare.
There are over two million people in prisons of every stripe in the United States. Over 555,000 people are in pretrial detention, locked away without being convicted of anything. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up for drug offenses. (The source for these numbers is this Prison Policy Initiative report.) There are hundreds of thousands of older prisoners who are uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Any serious effort to combat coronavirus must include the release of a huge number of these people, and others, out of prison. State governors and Donald Trump have the power to do this. Thousands of inmates across the country have been released, but that is nowhere near enough. New York actually sent 38 people inside Rikers last week. Meanwhile, ICE, which considers immigrants little more than dirt on the best of days, is carrying on as if nothing is happening in its detention centers. The new hero of the moment Andrew Cuomo is busy putting prisoners to work bottling hand sanitizer, but otherwise appears to be treating the situation inside New York’s horrendous jails as someone else’s problem.
It is useful to ask why this is happening. One reason is that people in prison are seen as less than human, and thus not worthy of our care or attention. But I think another, powerful reason is that the system that has put so many people in prison doesn’t want the rest of society to see that things will be alright if many of those people are let out. If Andrew Cuomo releases tons of people from jail and the world doesn’t collapse, why were they there in the first place? If older prisoners, and drug offenders, and people locked up because they couldn’t pay bail are set free, and everything is fine, some might start to wonder why America has expended so much time and money and cruelty trying to convince people that it won’t be. That kind of knowledge could be just as hard to contain as a disease.