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Coronavirus Deaths Will Overwhelm California Prisons Without Swift Action

April 09, 2020
Correctional health experts have made clear that flattening the curve also requires significantly depopulating prisons, jails, and detention centers.

This op-ed was originally published in the Daily Journal.

While turning our daily lives upside down, the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the critical role of science in formulating effective public health policies. “Flattening the curve” of infections has required social distancing — in schools, at workplaces, and in neighborhoods. Correctional health experts have made clear that flattening the curve also requires significantly depopulating prisons, jails, and detention centers. While Gov. Gavin Newsom’s actions to date fall far short of this guidance, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris has cosponsored federal legislation that can serve as a model for the state. 

The Emergency Community Supervision Act, also sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), models how we should respond to this crisis. The bill would immediately place vulnerable people — those over age 50, with underlying health issues, or who are pregnant — in community supervision outside of prison, unless they pose a violent threat to the community. The bill would also do the same for people who have 12 months or less to serve on their federal sentence.

Although prisons are physically secure, they are ill-equipped to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus within and across their walls. Some guards and staff will unknowingly introduce the virus into crowded, unsanitary facilities — where many are held in dormitories and alcohol-based sanitizer is banned — while others will take it home. Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, called the state’s prisons “a tinderbox of potential infection.” Already strained hospital resources, especially in rural areas, will not be able to accommodate a large number of COVID-19 cases from prisons and their surrounding communities. 

The recognition that correctional institutions — whether rural or urban — cannot contain the spread of the new coronavirus has led to reduced pretrial detention and early releases in California’s county jails, and a halt to prison admissions. Governor Newsom also plans to expedite the release of 3,500 people with non-violent convictions who would have been released in the next two months. These releases, to be conducted “within the next several weeks,” represent merely 3% of the state’s enormous prison population. Although California’s prisons are operating at 130% of their capacity, Governor Newsom has resisted urgent calls for broader decarceration under the Emergency Services Act. When pressed, the governor stated: “I have no interest … in releasing violent criminals from our system.”

Governor Newsom’s pledge to not address the substantial number of imprisoned people convicted of a violent offense unfortunately ignores longstanding criminological research. Many people convicted of violent crimes, whether robbery, assault, or even homicide, are no longer threats to public safety. A young man incarcerated for a violent offense has changed over his many years of incarceration. The “aging out of crime” phenomenon results from maturation and brain development that isn’t complete until around age 25. Sentenced as young people, some “lifers” are now elderly after decades of incarceration. Wardens credit them with bringing stability to prisons, their transformations making them role models for the young. When released, they have some of the lowest recidivism rates. Now in prison, they are especially likely to die from COVID-19. 

Nearly one in three imprisoned people in California — nearly 40,000 individuals — is serving a life sentence. Governor Jerry Brown was the first governor in decades to use his broad power to alleviate sentencing excesses for this population. He championed sentencing reforms, approved a substantial share of the parole board’s grant decisions, and commuted a number of parole-ineligible life sentences. Governor Newsom appeared poised to follow in his footsteps, and even recently issued a handful of commutations. But his actions have yet to reflect the scale of this pandemic. 

Some observers have questioned whether even deserving individuals can be released if they have no available housing options after years behind bars. Some imprisoned people are fortunate to have loved ones with space waiting for them. For those who do not, a statewide committee of service providers has recommended several strategies to secure emergency housing, such as by relying on hotels and college dormitories and lifting restrictions on cohabitating with family members in public housing.   

Until now, failing to swiftly end mass incarceration has wasted lives and resources. In this pandemic, the delay will hasten many deaths, among imprisoned people as well as the rest of us from whom they are not so distant. 

Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project.


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