One of the things that the current pandemic has done is strip away the veneer that enabled people to think that things were generally going well in this country except for a few areas that needed work. What has been revealed is that the very fabric holding the society together is highly frayed and needs major repairs. The most obvious deficiency is one that I have been repeatedly hammering on and that is the rotten health care system. Another is the lack of an adequate social safety net for people who find themselves suddenly out of work.
But another one that the pandemic has brought to the fore is the state of the prisons. The US’s (in)justice system is a scandal, jailing far too many people for far too long for even minor, non-violent offenses. The total number of people in prisons in the US is a staggering 2.3 million, making up about 25% of the entire world’s prison population although the US has just about 5% of the total population. The net result is predictable. The prisons are filled with mostly poor people and people of color living in highly overcrowded conditions. The only real beneficiaries of this system are the private for—profit prison companies and grandstanding prosecutors and police and judges who can boast about their toughness on crime by pointing to the numbers of people they incarcerate.
While there have been increasing calls in recent years for reforms of prison sentencing guidelines and some prosecutors have been elected after running on reform planks, the covid-19 pandemic has put the prison system under much closer scrutiny because having large numbers of people in close proximity with minimum access to sanitary facilities is a recipe for disaster. It should not be a surprise that, for example, at least 80% of the prison population and over half of the staff in a prison in Marion, Ohio have tested positive for covid-19, with at least 11 inmate and one staff deaths. In another prison, at least 23 prisoners and one staff member have died.
There are 50,000 prisoners in Ohio alone and there have been calls to release at least 20,000 of them but Ohio’s governor Mike DeWine, who has received generally positive reviews for his handling of the pandemic crisis, has released only 100 of them and seems unconcerned about the toll it is taking. So why are governors not moving more aggressively to release prisoners? Azzurra Crispino, co-founder of Prison Abolition Prisoner Support, or PAPS and an associate professor of philosophy at Austin Community College in Texas whose husband James is incarcerated at Marion, says that politicans in the US are fearful of being seen as soft on crime.
The governors don’t want to be seen as being soft on crime. And politically, they have absolutely nothing to lose. Whereas those of us who have family and friends who are incarcerated understand that these are loved ones, and we don’t want to see them die. In addition, I don’t think that there’s been enough focus on the judiciary and how it can be involved. Now, Ohio is a little unique because it has a completely different parole system than most states. Long/short, it almost got rid of parole in ’97.
So, what that means is that it’s easier for political officials to basically be able to pass the hot potato around, I think, in state facilities, in a way that we have not seen at the federal level or at the city and county jails, where, due to the pretrial nature of many people, I think there’s been a greater focus on helping people who are presumed innocent. So, I think, ultimately, this is a question of humanization. As long as we continue to see incarcerated people as disposable, then we’re not going to deal with this problem head on.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, professor at CUNY Graduate Center and co-founder of California Prison Moratorium Project and Critical Resistance, has studied prison systems across the world.
So, in other parts of the world, what one sees is a very simple fact: Where life is precious, life is precious. In places where the state, the government, municipalities, social justice organizations, faith communities, labor unions work together to lift up human life, the incidents of crime and punishment, including the incidents of interpersonal harm, are less likely to occur. And this is in places where populations are every bit as diverse as in the United States. We also see that in places where inequality is the deepest, the use of prison and punishment is the greatest. Nowhere, however, gets even close to the United States.
Again, “We’re #1!” as people like to boast, except that it is in the wrong category.
Even in the absence of the really radical reforms that are needed, what I do not understand is why during this pandemic, we do not do the minimum and suspend the sentences of all non-violent prisoners so that they are released temporarily. When conditions improve, they can be brought back in to continue serving their sentences. Even better, if they have stayed out of trouble while out of prison, that could count towards them having their sentences reduced or even commuted.