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Congress must heed the ticking COVID-19 timebomb behind bars

The spread of COVID-19 inside of U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers must be stopped if society as a whole is to be safe.

Nkechi Taifa

The spread of COVID-19 inside of U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers must be stopped if society as a whole is to be safe. Nine of the 10 largest known clusters of COVID-19 infections in the United States are in correctional facilities. At least 84,000 people in prisons and jails have been infected and at least 703 incarcerated people and correctional workers have died from the virus. These institutions are incubators for the virus. Social distancing is nearly impossible, and incarcerated populations are at greater risk for health conditions that suppress immune response. Moreover, due to the harsh and lengthy sentencing polices over the past three decades, many are elderly with increased vulnerability to the virus.

When people are sentenced to prison, they are not sentenced to die by infection, but that is exactly what is happening. As people are transferred in and out of jails and prisons, they enter areas where they live in close proximity with one another and where overcrowding makes social distancing impossible. The risk factors in these situations cannot be overstated, not just for prisoners, but for correctional staff as well who cycle in and out every day, guaranteeing COVID-19’s spread to the larger public.

Time is of the essence, and every day brings the prison system closer to disaster. Inaction is not an option. Unless Congress specifically and directly addresses this crisis, we will all be at risk.

The Justice Roundtable has submitted a comprehensive set of recommendations to Congress that will alleviate the COVID-19 pandemic relating to prisons and jails. These provisions ensure safe conditions for those who remain incarcerated; the reduction of incarceration levels to end facility overcrowding and limit the spread of the virus; and support for safe and effective reentry to the community. We joined bipartisan partners in calling upon the president to exercise his unique authority to commute federal prison sentences for vulnerable populations. We have been in the courts calling for the compassionate release of at-risk populations due to the extraordinary and compelling circumstance of the pandemic. Full use must be made of all possible tools to release people, many of whom are elderly, have been over-incarcerated, and are at great risk. It is time that policies shift from over-punishment and mass incarceration to the promotion of compassion and justice.

Nkechi Taifa leads the Justice Roundtable, a coalition of more than 100 organizations working to reform federal criminal justice laws and policies.

COVID 19, criminal justice, prison reform

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