We Should Use the Coronavirus Pandemic to Fight Mass Incarceration

April 3, 2020

Over the past few weeks, billions of people across the world have learned what it means to be “socially distant.” They have canceled their plans with friends for the foreseeable future, searched for new hobbies to stave off the monotony, and tried to learn how to live (and maintain their sanity) without leaving home as shelter-in-place orders proliferate.

But one group has lived with social distancing for years: prisoners. “Everything can feel especially far away when you’re in prison,” Christopher Blackwell, an inmate at the Washington State Reformatory, recently wrote at the Marshall Project. Of course, that’s because prisons are designed to isolate people from society. It’s exactly the wrong kind of distancing, though: to survive this crisis, we’ll have to stay physically apart while building ever-closer social ties. Incarceration has always done precisely the opposite, surrounding inmates physically but cutting them off socially.

With inmates and staff members now testing positive for COVID-19 in local jails and state and federal penitentiaries, a humanitarian crisis is looming. The social distancing that public health professionals are advocating — staying six feet apart to limit the spread of disease — is functionally impossible inside of a prison. “People refer to cruise ships as petri dishes, but nobody has invented a more effective vector for transmitting disease than a city jail,” a former New York City corrections commissioner told ABC News. Perhaps the most troubling case of all is New York’s Rikers Island. The jail’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 18. By Tuesday morning, there were nearly two hundred confirmed cases.

Read the rest at Jacobin.