Prisoners are Not Safe in Covid Era Incarceration Systems


Marwa Chohan, Contributing Writer, Albuquerque NM

My fascination with the criminal justice system began in middle school when I first delved into the world of true crime media. Through podcasts, articles, and documentaries, I became a fanatic and, quite frankly, I still am one. However, it wasn’t long before I became exposed to the holes in our country’s criminal reform system. Harsh sentences for petty crimes, uneven conviction rates in minority populations, ineffective reform programs, the list goes on and on. In light of the recent pandemic, these flaws have become even more apparent, as prisoners face a devastating health crisis exacerbated by their living conditions.

The US currently holds the world record for the highest incarceration rate in the world– a staggering 724 per 100,000 people. Additionally, 22% of the world’s inmates are incarcerated in U.S. prisons, however, the U.S. only holds about 4.4% of the global population. While advocates around the country have been fighting to reform the justice system in lieu of wrongful convictions, harsh sentences, and disproportionate targeting of racial minorities, perhaps the most devastating facet of this system facing us today is that of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. According to an April 30th LA Times Article, over 70% of federal inmates who have been tested have received positive results for the virus and there is little question that this number has risen immensely.  While overcrowded conditions, denial of proper healthcare, and lack of protective gear such as masks and gloves have certainly led to this devastating circumstance, there is perhaps a larger issue at hand that would require proper reform when the government is not so preoccupied with containing a global pandemic: incarceration rates and policy regarding those who find themselves in prison for the rest of their lives.

There is no question that overcrowding in prisons has been a topic many have spoken out about. A 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union outlines the factors contributing to overpopulation in the US prison system, beginning with the 1970s prison boom. In the 70s, the US saw a sudden increase in crime rates spurred by the rise of gang and drug culture, and, therefore, a higher incarceration rate. These crimes were oftentimes gang and drug related incidents that took in place in low income, minority populated neighbourhoods. As such, most incarcerated individuals were young black males. However, this was exacerbated when Richard Nixon declared his “war on drugs” in 1971, onece again targeting low income individuals. The “war on drugs” began with the so-called Rockefeller drug laws put in place by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. According to these policies, anyone selling more than 2 ounces or possessing more than 4 ounces of opium, cannabis, or cocaine would be subject to a minimum of 15 years to life in prison and a maximum of 25 years to life.

However, this did little to help the problem and instead created another one. “There is a challenge with America where we have invested, unfortunately, in a war on drugs, which has been profoundly painful to our nation, with a 500 percent increase in incarceration in our country,” said Senator Cory Booker in a 2016 interview, “disproportionately affecting poor and disproportionately affecting minorities.” Despite repeal in 2008, these laws have had long standing consequences for our criminal incarceration system. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly half of all federal inmates were convicted on drug charges, some serving life sentences for as minor a crime as possession of cannabis. Now, as our country faces a global health crisis, federal inmates are amongst the most highly affected demographics in the U.S.

In early April as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, Attorney General William P. Barr ordered that early release for inmates approaching their release dates be made a priority in order to deal with issues of overcrowding and promote social distancing in prisons. However, following a review of 50 federal case transcripts, it was revealed that many judges did not follow such orders and as a result, the virus has spread at an increased rate.

In response to reports of high infection rates in prisons, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pitched the Pandemic Justice Response Act on May 12th. This bill, passed four days later, requires the release of all prisoners who are juveniles, over the age of 50 with health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, HIV, cancer, or are pregnant and those within one year of their release date. However, while this bill was well intentioned, it may not be enough and more inmates may take their places.

After the death of George Floyd on May 25, protests rocked the country, ones that are still taking place today. According to a June 1st article by The Hill, at least 4,400 protestors were arrested, leaving little room for improvement in the fight to combat the virus in jails across the nation. This, combined with a June 16th article by the New York Times outlining poor testing and healthcare conditions as primary factors in the 73% increase in inmate deaths since mid May, raises a larger question: at what point do we say “enough”?

The history of incarceration in the US is not a pretty one. Long standing policies have disproportionately affected minorities and this becomes part of a broader debate as the #BlackLivesMatter movement is taking on a role in our society that is perhaps larger than it has ever been since the days of MLK and Rosa Parks. In addition, as this civil movement takes place, law enforcement continues to resort to arrests and force, leaving little room for improvement. Holding cells house demonstrators while prisons continue to spread the virus. As our country stands in turmoil now and national leadership offers no guidance, little foresight exists for betterment in the near future, both for civil rights as well as getting the virus under control. Our “new normal”, it seems, may not be as normal as we think.