The release of incarcerated people from prisons during the pandemic is a controversial move that twenty-one states and many local areas across the US have pursued. I agree with this move to release inmates early on the basis of low assessed risk to the community and high assessed risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Furthermore, I am in favor of serious changes to reduce recidivism (as a measure of harm) and end mass incarceration.
Releasing incarcerated people during a pandemic is deeply counterintuitive for many people. Yet, I believe that the logic is sound. First, it is important to recognize that prisons are hotspots for COVID-19. Due to overcrowding and the impossibility of social distancing in prisons, COVID-19 has the potential to spread like wildfire. Both incarcerated people and the surrounding communities are at risk here. Prisons require correctional officers and other personnel to operate, and these people can become vectors for the transmission of COVID-19 to the community. For example, San Quentin State Prison experienced over 1,600 cases of COVID-19 by the fourth month of the pandemic, a number which constitutes about a third of the facility (including both inmates and staff). State and local administrations are rightly concerned about the dangers posed by COVID-19, and as a result, many have moved to release inmates early.
The first major concern of opponents of this policy is that formerly incarcerated people will refuse to wear masks and to social distance once outside of prison. While this concern might seem reasonable, remember that even the formerly incarcerated are motivated to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Besides, this same concern over compliance with masks and social distancing applies to the community at large. This worry is no reason to keep people imprisoned, especially considering that an outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons presents a danger to the community as a whole. Not to mention, the general American public does not seem to be doing a wonderful job of following those guidelines, meaning that we would be holding incarcerated people to a higher standard than other members of our society.
The second major concern of opponents of this policy is that those released early might reoffend. The problem with this concern is that these prisoners were going to be released soon anyway, and that state and local administrations are primarily targeting low-level offenders and those who have been determined to be rehabilitated. If one is truly worried about this, one must also be in favor of major changes to the prison system in the US. As it currently stands, if prisons are meant to prevent or reduce future harm (as measured by recidivism rates) in addition to serving as a form of punishment and temporarily protecting the community, they are failing miserably. According to a 2018 follow-up study in the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83% of former state prisoners studied were rearrested at least once during the nine-year period following their release. Prisons serve as a grimy bandage on the societal wound of crime. Instead of addressing root causes of criminality, such as poverty and drug abuse, prisons merely lock people away. The absurdity of this can be seen through the concentration of criminals in one place. If the goal is to return people to society, the worst that we can do for them is to expose them to others who have violated the law. If we are to have prisons, they ought to do their best to mimic society and minimize contact between those who have committed crimes. Better yet, the criminal justice system should be focused on redressing harms, rather than perpetuating them. By focusing on punishment and refusing to support the rehabilitation of incarcerated people out of prison, the prison system makes it likely that they will reoffend. Therefore, anyone who will not fully commit to the dismantling and changing of our criminal justice system cannot complain about prisoners who are released early possibly reoffending because they refuse to take concrete steps that might reduce future harm. For instance, a small number of inmates released from Rikers Island have committed new crimes; I believe that this is mainly a reflection of the inadequacy of our prison system at rehabilitation and transitioning incarcerated people out of prison.
I believe that the roots of the opposition to this policy of releasing prisoners early during the pandemic are a lack of regard for prisoners’ lives and a belief that the point of the prison system should be punishment. I believe that this should not be the case. Our prisons and our justice system have long failed to redress harms or address the root causes of crime. By taking this opportunity to examine the structure and function of our prison system, we can begin the process of transforming our communities and the lives of incarcerated people. Regardless of their crimes, no prisoner deserves to die of COVID-19.