Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

America’s Prison System Is a Danger to Public Health. These Numbers Are Proof.

Public health experts have been sounding the alarm about the spread of coronavirus in American prisons. Yet despite repeated warnings, newly released data show that America’s addiction to incarceration continues unabated — endangering all of us, both inside and outside prison walls.

Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia.

It should come as little surprise that America’s prisons and jails are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. As a former New York City corrections commissioner recently put it to ABC News: “People refer to cruise ships as petri dishes, but nobody has invented a more effective vector for transmitting disease than a city jail.”

Predictably enough, local, state, and federal jails were quick to report cases of COVID-19, and inaction has produced a terrifying rate of infection. It took less than two weeks, for example, for cases at New York’s Riker’s Island facility to multiply from one to nearly two hundred.

While every country’s carceral system is probably especially prone to seeing a rapid spread of infectious diseases, America’s uniquely punitive approach to criminal justice puts the emerging health crisis in its prisons on another level. In 2018, for example, there were more than 2.1 million prisoners in the United States, compared to 1.65 million in China, 690,000 in Brazil, and 583,000 in Russia — the United States topping all other countries with an incarceration rate of 655 per 100,000 people, according to numbers released that year by the World Prison Brief database.

As Heather Ann Thompson, a historian of American prison rebellions and urban social unrest, recently explained to Jacobin: “The COVID-19 outbreak is essentially a reaping of what we’ve sown with mass incarceration, from a public health perspective.” Thompson noted that the risk posed by prison outbreaks extends far outside the walls and fences of America’s carceral facilities, ultimately endangering prisoners and members of the general public alike:

Prisons don’t just pose a health risk to those locked inside of them, but also to the general public. This is because most people do, in fact, come home from prison, and they often bring with them highly infectious diseases — whether we’re talking about HIV or tuberculosis or COVID-19.

Health experts and officials alike have issued many warnings about the risk of serious outbreaks in prisons and jails. Yet a newly released report from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization that studies issues surrounding law enforcement and criminal justice, suggests that America’s prison system has been dangerously slow to react amid the spread of COVID-19.

Using data gathered from state corrections departments and the federal Bureau of Prisons, the report’s authors observed a decline in the incarceration rate since its peak in 2007 — a trend they attribute to, among other things, a decrease in the number of people in federal prisons. But, as they hasten to add, information collected for March and April 2020 clearly shows that no American jurisdiction has “moved with the urgency required to meet the recommendations of public health officials to reduce incarceration” in the wake of COVID-19 — the overall prison population having decreased by a mere 1.6 percent.

Five states, in fact (Idaho, Iowa, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming), actually had more people in prison at the end of March than they did during the final week of 2019 — as measured by the total number of people under the jurisdiction of correctional authorities (which includes private facilities and other carceral institutions, like halfway houses). In total, Vera’s numbers for March 31, 2020 show a total of 1,287,416 people in state and federal prisons, compared with 1,308,009 on December 31, 2019 — a decrease of just over 20,000.

Mass incarceration has always been immoral. But, like other hallmarks of a needlessly unequal and unjust society, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown its visceral cruelty into even sharper relief. As Matt Hartman argued last month, the outbreak therefore represents an important opportunity for advocates to push decarceration measures with renewed urgency.

Though proponents of mass incarceration see it as integral to the maintenance of public safety, the spread of COVID-19 is a clear and present example of precisely the opposite: prisons are risking not only the lives of inmates — many of them imprisoned for minor or nonviolent offences — but also the quality of public health at large and the effectiveness of efforts to contain the virus.

The dismantling of America’s uniquely brutal incarceration system is long overdue. Why not start now?