With the COVID-19 infection rate in prisons four times that of the general U.S. population, public health and medical experts are urging prisons to reduce their populations to save lives. But governors and corrections officials are still passing the buck — almost a year into the pandemic. Overlooking existing mechanisms that could be used to release people, states have instead imposed a number of policy changes that have caused further harm to the incarcerated people they are supposed to protect:

  • Correctional agencies have suspended programs, classes, and other valuable resources for incarcerated people. Not only does suspending programming make life in prison more difficult; it also slows down upcoming releases: People who have been approved for parole are still waiting behind bars to complete programs required for their release.
  • Shockingly, despite clear evidence that solitary confinement is not a suitable replacement for medical isolation or quarantine, the use of solitary confinement has increased 500% during the pandemic.
  • Visitation has been limited or completely suspended in all 50 states and the federal prison system, and only some states have provided free video and phone calls while visitation is suspended.
  • Prison systems have delayed thousands of releases scheduled for 2020, scrambling to balance the need for fewer people behind bars with the need to connect people to community health resources if they have been exposed to COVID-19 prior to release.

What states need now is a simple, equitable way of getting lots of people out of prison safely, rather than continuing to incarcerate them in ever more dangerous and cruel conditions. A solution — albeit one that will require legislative action in most states — is for states to immediately change their “good time” policies.

Read the full article about U.S. prisons ten months into the pandemic by Emily Widra and Wanda Bertram at Prison Policy Initiative.