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Covid-19 is forcing us to finally confront the realities of mass incarceration

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  • Picture of Ashish Prashar FRSA
    Ashish Prashar FRSA
  • Prisons

Ashish Prashar is an RSA Fellow, Director of Communications of Publicis Sapient, and a Board Member of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out Staying Out New York and Leap Confronting Conflict.

The injustice of mass incarceration and our legal system, on both sides of the Atlantic, is the civil rights issue of our time. What is both saddening and terrifying is that it may be the onset of Covid-19 that shines a devastating light on it. 

Prisons, by nature often overcrowded and with terrible access to healthcare, risk their inhabitants being among the hardest-hit groups of people in the world.

As this disease rages unchecked through their walls it puts everyone at terrible risk of both the illness and the fallout as health staff leave in droves to assist on the frontlines of civilian hospitals. The reality is that you can’t social distance behind bars. That’s why the reluctance of leaders to release non-threatening inmates immediately is immoral and indefensible.

Prisoners’ lives are at risk due to Covid-19

Despite the urgency of the situation, our leaders continue to put thousands of people’s lives at risk by trapping them in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Unfortunately, Covid-19 infects in clusters; inmates packed into small cells are like lambs to the slaughter. Swift action is the only viable option.

Incarceration is devastating to personal and public health under normal circumstances. Inadequate access to medical care has long been a concern for incarcerated people, and this pandemic inexorably raises the stakes. For years, we’ve been banging the drum that mass incarceration kills, yet our leaders have remained unmoved. Maybe they just didn’t believe it, feel it, or even understand it.

As a proud New Yorker and Londoner alike, it is damning to see the similarities on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • In America, African American individuals are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people - representing more than half of incarcerated people in the US, but just 16% of the population. 
  • In the UK, people of colour make up 26 percent of the prison population, and just 14 percent of the general population.

Frankly people are going to start dying in jails and prisons at extraordinarily high rates because citizens, prosecutors, judges, and our leaders view them as less deserving of life - as less than human.

I know this from experience. I was sentenced to a year at a young offender institute in the UK, where dehumanisation was the de facto experience as soon as I arrived, with guards encouraging fights and brutally penalising teenagers after tiny provocations.

My experience is not that much different from what teenagers and adults experience in prison today, except that now there’s a nightmare on the loose: coronavirus threatening lives. The New York Board of correction, criminal legal reform advocates and medical experts alike have been saying for weeks that the best way to protect prisoners, correction officers and medical staff at places like Rikers is to let prisoners walk free where possible, as quickly as possible.

Why are our leaders being slow to act?

Now prisons are literally a death trap, as the highly infectious virus has already led to over 55 confirmed UK prisoner cases and many more in the US. The WHO has suggested there will be “huge mortality rates” within jails if nothing is done - and it is time for our leaders to release all non-violent prisoners without hesitation.

This agenda is not new. People who work within the system on a daily basis, like Public Defender Scott Hechinger of Brooklyn, are fighting every day for the safety and freedom of kids and adults stuck inside the death boxes at Rikers.

Julio Medina, the founder and Chief Exec of Exodus Transitional Community, whose organisation is lobbying every day for the release of thousands of incarcerated individuals as well as supporting re-entry for those who are released. As recently as this past week the Exodus team has worked with the Mayor New York City’s Office to support 100 homeless inmates who were being released from Rikers, helping them get settled at a hotel and handle reentry in during this crisis.

Due to the urgency of Covid-19, at a Federal level 522 of the system’s 146,000 total inmates were moved to home confinement, according to the Bureau of Prisons. At a local government level, California Governor Newsom is looking to expedite the release of 3,500 inmates in the next 60 days and in New York we have released nine hundred of their people from behind bars.

Organisations like the Color of Change, Justice Not Fear, the National Bail Fund Network and the ACLU work tirelessly to secure more releases and justice reform measures. And all these amazing people and organizations fully understand the “life cycle” of the justice system. The reality is that many incarcerated are in for petty crimes, non-violent offences, technical (non-criminal) violations and parole violations.

They are coming to their elected officials with plans. Plans that can work to release people safely, with support.

So why are our leaders being so slow to act? Because they find it more palatable to turn a blind eye to the deaths this pandemic will pile up in our prisons and jails, rather than treat people who are incarcerated with care and respect, who are of a certain class, and disproportionately black and brown.

They are practicing (yes, practicing) institutional racism and class-based prejudice, underpinned by the belief prisoners are acceptable targets of indiscriminate anger and disdain. This idea is so ingrained, many are willing to risk worsening the crisis to protect it.

In the middle of the crisis, we’ve seen the Governor of New York reverse last year’s historic bail reform. This re-expands the types of cases that can lead to imprisonment and makes it more likely people with criminal records (the most over-policed communities in society) will be re-jailed. Similarly, the Governor of Texas issued an executive order suspending much of the State’s bail laws and judges in California rejected Covid-19 related releases.

We lock up too many people – it’s time to act

The underlying problem that Covid-19 is exposing is that we lock up too many people to begin with. If we did the meaningful work of being extra judicious about incarcerating fellow humans in the first place we wouldn’t now be scrambling to fight for their release.

Vulnerable people have already suffered greatly in confinement, with no clear mission for correction and now could suffer worse, possibly even die. Our jails and prisons are soon going to become a humanitarian disaster. I urge elected officials to stand up for our communities and release people immediately. It’s time to stop dithering and start acting with real consideration for our fellow human beings.

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