Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19
University of Chicago Law Review Online (2020)
32 Pages Posted: 15 Jan 2021
With the global pandemic still unfolding, we are only beginning to make sense of the overall impact of COVID-19 on the people who live and work inside American prisons and jails, and of what effect, if any, the pandemic will have on the nation’s continued commitment to mass incarceration under unduly harsh conditions. In this Essay, I take stock of where things now stand. I also consider how we got to this point, and how penal policy would need to change if we are to prevent another round of needless suffering and death when the next pandemic hits. Part I explains why the incarcerated face an elevated risk of infection and potentially fatal complications from COVID-19. Part II describes the measures various corrections administrators took at the start of the pandemic to try to limit viral spread inside jails and prisons, and why, however well-intentioned, these measures were insufficient to bring the virus under control. Part III addresses the steps taken by public officials at all levels to reduce the number of people in custody and offers initial thoughts as to why, after a concerted push for releases on the part of many public actors in the first months of the pandemic, these efforts had already considerably slowed by the latter part of May 2020. (Here, the focus is primarily, though not exclusively, on the federal courts’ nonresponse to urgent petitions from incarcerated plaintiffs.) Part IV draws on the work of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. It explores what the data shows regarding infection rates and COVID deaths in custody, describes the limits of the available data, and explains why the impact on people in jails and prisons is likely even greater than the official numbers suggest. Part V zeroes in on the culture of secrecy that American corrections administrators have long been empowered to cultivate regarding what goes on behind bars. It argues that this culture has exacerbated the threat COVID poses to the incarcerated as well as to staff, that such secrecy is at odds with the imperatives of a public institution, and that we need to replace the reigning default posture of concealment with an ethos of transparency. This Essay concludes with a call for a broad normative reorientation toward assessing carceral policy through a public health lens.
Keywords: COVID-19, infection rates in prisons, prison measures during pandemic to limit infection, prison reform, COVID-19 Behind Bars data
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