Giving Compass' Take:

• As COVID-19 cases surge in prisons, there is a way for states to expand compassionate release so that more prisoners, particularly those at high-risk, can potentially avoid infection. 

• What can donors do to support prison populations during COVID-19?

• Learn about the effects and aftermath of COVID-19 in prisons.

Many of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country are in prisons, where inadequate medical care and flawed preventative measures have failed to slow the coronavirus’s spread. Though prisons have made some attempts to address these shortcomings, many of their efforts—including putting people in solitary confinement to promote social distancing—have serious deleterious side effects on the mental health of people in prison. And despite officials’ efforts, the Marshall Project reported increases in confirmed cases and deaths in several state prisons in the past week.

One immediate way to protect people in prison and prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to substantially reduce (PDF) the prison population. Some prisons have started doing so, trailing behind efforts by jails, but it is not enough. Further, these releases have increased racial disparities; states such as Illinois are releasing Black people from prison at lower rates than their white counterparts.

Much of the media’s attention has been on the federal government’s failed response in federal prisons, but scant attention has been paid to state prisons, which incarcerate five times more people than federal prisons and jails. States seeking to reduce their prison populations should consider all of the tools at their disposal, including clemency, furlough, and compassionate release—the latter of which directly targets those at highest risk of death from COVID-19.

Expanding compassionate release would not only help prisons reduce deaths from COVID-19 but would also release people who don’t pose a threat to public safety, saving taxpayers money. The return on investment for incarcerating people is low; spending time in prison is not effective in deterring future crime, and it can even do more harm. Although it is difficult to assess the exact cost, several studies have theorized it costs three times (PDF) more to incarcerate people who are 55 years old and older with chronic illnesses. Despite the hefty price tag, the care patients of this age receive in prison is poor (PDF); several states (PDF) lack a mechanism to monitor the quality of their health care.

Read the full article about expanding compassionate release during COVID-19 by Andreea Matei at Urban Institute.