by Sean Wild
As a society, we have a responsibility to each other to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. This responsibility does not extend to only those we personally deem worthy, but to all members. This must include demographics many people do not want to think about, namely those being held in prisons and jails. With the onset and spread of the Omicron variant, granting clemency and reducing the prison population is an issue of life now more than ever.
The novel coronavirus transfers from person to person fairly easily. The recommended ways of stopping or at least slowing its spread, aside from vaccination, are social distancing, face coverings, frequent hand washing or hand sanitizer use, and frequent testing. These things (distance, masks, soap and water, and COVID tests) may be easy enough to access for people living in the United States’ general population, but are not things many within the prison system have the luxury of having access to. This has contributed to COVID being spread within prisons across the country at a rapid rate.
The recently discovered Omicron variant hit the United Kingdom before the United States. According to Dr. Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the U.K. Health Security Agency, the transfer rate of Omicron has been increasing and it spreads faster than the Delta variant. Though the severity of this new strain is still not known, there is hope that Omicron may be a milder strain in terms of illness than the Delta variant, which first hit the United States in the summer of 2021. However, even if it is a milder variant, the increased transferability may mean an increased need for hospitalization. As many will recall, overrun hospitals and health care facilities were a large and detrimental factor during the initial COVID outbreak. According to the CDC data, over 250,000 hospitalizations have been recorded related to COVID across the United States since March 2020.
Within the U.S. prison system, there have been 412,000 confirmed COVID cases, and over 2,700 people have died from it since the start of the pandemic. According to data collected in 2020, those in prison are over 5 times more likely to be infected than those living in the general U.S. population, and almost 35 percent more likely to die. This data shows that once COVID-19 gets into a prison facility, it is very difficult to stop its spread. Though reporting varies from state to state, data collected seem to indicate that somewhere around 55 percent of people within prisons across the country have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to almost 74 percent of the general U.S. population.
For those who live by and advocate for the consistent life ethic, interaction with the prison system often comes in the form of opposition to the death penalty. This is certainly a worthy cause and one those who believe in the CLE should actively fight for.
To look more broadly at the United States prison system, one will see a system set up to have one general response to the extremely wide range of misconduct and offense within our society, namely criminalization and incarceration. This method of dealing with crime has not been shown to be an effective way of rehabilitation. Of those released from prisons in the United States, 2 out of 3 will be rearrested within 3 years, with 50 percent ending up back in prison. The United States has one of the highest rates of recidivism (that is, the rate of someone previously convicted of a crime committing another crime) in the world. One can see incarceration as an issue of discarding a segment of society, not a system set up to rehabilitate and assist people to rejoin society.
A cornerstone of the CLE is the dignity of all humans, no matter their stage of life or what they may or may not have done in their past. In the context of the current pandemic, this means being able (to the best of one’s ability) to keep healthy and stay safe from a potentially deadly, highly transmissible disease, no matter the condition or state a person’s life might be in.
So what can be done to help mitigate the spread of COVID within the prison walls? For one, making personal protective equipment such as masks and hygiene products such as soap freely available to all could be a helpful and important way to reduce the spread. However, the greatest way of slowing the transfer rate is the ability to socially distance, which is something people in jails and prisons are not able to maintain.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The rate has been rapidly increasing since the 1980s. This has resulted in largely overcrowded prisons all across the country. According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently 2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years. Releasing individuals from prisons and jails, therefore reducing the total number of people being held in the system, would greatly help in slowing the spread and is generally within the power of the governor of each state. Governors have the power to grant clemency or commute the sentences of those being held in prisons within their state.
There are many in prisons and jails right now who could be released. For example, despite marijuana being legalized for recreational use in 19 states, decriminalized in an additional 13 states, and approved for medicinal purposes in 36 states, there are many people being held within those states on marijuana-related charges. Granting clemency to these individuals would reduce the overall prison population. Seniors and older offenders are another demographic to look at for potential early release. According to a report from the United States Sentencing Commission, “Age exerted a strong influence on recidivism across all sentence length categories. Older offenders were less likely to commit crimes after release than younger offenders who had served similar sentences, regardless of the length of sentence imposed.” These are just two general examples of many that could be considered for clemency.
Reducing the prison population is imperative to help to curb the spread of COVID-19, particularly in a time when it’s unknown just when a new variant may appear. It is something for those of us who believe in the consistent life ethic to take a hard look at. Advocacy is an uphill battle in general and can be even tougher for those inside jails and prisons. As a number of new strains and virus mutations have already shown up since the start of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to join our voices in calling for decarceration to help stop the spread of COVID and uphold the right to health for all members of our society, whether they be outside or inside the prison walls.