COVID-19's rampage through America's jails and prisons in the latter months of 2020 hardly qualifies anyone for solutions-journalism kudos for effective responses. But the focus of this collection is on the earliest months of the pandemic, and on responses that could have more lasting effects on incarceration trends than on pandemic control.
On epidemiological grounds, the report card could hardly be worse. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice that has tracked COVID-19 in prisons since early in the pandemic, found as of mid-January at least 343,000 coronavirus cases in state and federal prisons since the start of the pandemic, and more than 2,100 prisoner deaths, often because prisons spread the virus by moving prisoners from one facility to another. Corrections officers and other prison employees are members of their communities, and so prisons' distinction as some of the worst virus hotspots ended up spreading the virus beyond prison walls. The same conditions that hold true for prisons – crowded conditions and poor sanitation, making prevention all but impossible once the virus is present – are even more acute in local jails, where turnover is much higher than in prisons because those held in jails are typically held on bail pending trial or serving sentences of under a year. When The New York Times documented the grim statistics in jails, it quoted one Florida prosecutor's lament: "I don’t know if there’s anything else we can do, short of opening the doors and letting people out.”
And therein lies the chief lesson to be learned: how letting people out revealed itself as a strategy that could be achieved rapidly and relatively painlessly. And, because so many jails and prisons proved able to let people out early or decline to lock up so many in the first place, this posed a provocative question that even law enforcement officials started voicing as they saw what was possible: How many people do we incarcerate needlessly during ordinary times?
Most of the early successes at COVID-19 containment in jails and prisons turned out to be all too short-lived. But these stories teach lessons about how, without even requiring legislative changes, the system was able to incarcerate many fewer people, by encouraging police, prosecutors, courts, jailers, and community groups to think differently and act quickly.
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