Volume 58

What Coronavirus Has Taught Us About Unnecessary Incarceration

by Carrie Leonetti

Since the inception of the global COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a nationwide push to release from prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers nonviolent offenders and pretrial detainees who do not need to be incarcerated because they are “low risk” to their communities. After all, prisons, jails, and other detention facilities are crowded and unsanitary.

These facilities are closed environments, particularly susceptible to infectious epidemics. Inmates cannot exactly engage in recommended hygiene and social-distancing practices, especially because many correctional facilities utilize dormitory-style sleeping arrangements. Hand sanitizer, because of its alcohol content, is considered contraband at correctional facilities.Correctional health systems are notoriously inadequate. Simply put, the threat to the public posed by the release of these detainees pales in comparison to the threat that keeping them locked up poses to their health.

This Essay argues that the temporary policies of release from correctional institutions instituted in the wake of the coronavirus should continue indefinitely. Part I traces how the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities has impacted vulnerable prisoners. It then describes the humanitarian response to that crisis, including the reduction of custodial arrests and the early release of waves of inmates. Additionally, it notes the absence of a negative impact on community safety that these measures have had.

Part II argues that the success of the COVID-19 humanitarian response demonstrates that much incarceration is unnecessary in the first place. It describes the mechanisms of mass incarceration and argues that compassion should not be an extraordinary remedy for dangerous conditions of confinement. The Essay concludes that the new and more humane arrest and detention policies adopted in the wake of coronavirus should continue beyond the pandemic

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