Prison Reform Is Undermining Public Health and Safety

For a few months in the fall of 2021, reports of unchecked violence, abuse, and neglect at the jail on New York City’s Rikers Island were plastered across national news before receding back into the routinized cruelty that constitutes the underbelly of American life. This exceptional coverage of the brutality behind bars provoked universal condemnation. But in its short-lived ascent to the forefront of political discussions and popular media, this media “event” failed to account for the most unsettling reality at play: Rikers is everywhere.

Last week, while acknowledging that “people are dying” as a result of neglect at the jail, a federal judge nonetheless granted New York City Mayor Eric Adams more time to avoid Rikers being put into federal receivership—a threatened slap on the wrist for the city’s repeatedly fatal refusals to respect the constitutional rights of those it cages. As Rikers continues to be scrutinized, both national news media and federal authorities are largely ignoring that the conditions noted at Rikers are far closer to the norm than exception across U.S. carceral facilities.

Abysmal conditions at Houston’s Harris County Jail, for example, drove even more deaths last year than at Rikers, and parallel sustained crises continue across the country. Over what has been by far the deadliest two years in their history, a large proportion of U.S. jails and prisons have demonstrated themselves incapable of fulfilling their legal obligations to ensure safe conditions for those they hold inside their walls. Even prior to the pandemic, all 50 states were reporting an inability to hire staff at adequate levels to ensure basic safety. This has worsened significantly since.

Jail and prison administrators have responded by dramatically increasing their reliance on solitary confinement as a supposed “protective” measure, with the subjection of 80,000 people held in solitary on an average day in “normal times” ballooning to approximately 300,000 held in such conditions during the pandemic. When enforced more than 15 days, as has long been accepted as standard operating procedure in U.S. facilities, solitary is defined by the U.N. as torture and a blatant violation of human rights. Abusive conditions like these, alongside woefully (and illegally) deficient health care in jails and prisons, have led to substantial increases in suicides, homicides, ignored medical emergencies, general health care neglect, and COVID-19 outbreaks among incarcerated people. And, in the context of absent data and auditing systems alongside incentives to cover up abuse inside jails and prisons, however bad things may appear on paper, they are certain to be far worse in reality.

Read more: COVID-19 Has Devastated the U.S. Prison and Jail Population

In response, many officials have done what New York City is proposing for Rikers: close the most dysfunctional facilities while simply redistributing the people they hold. For example, at least 12 states have closed prisons over the last year in connection with staffing shortfalls and reports of systematic abuse, violence, and generalized disorder. Although this may appear to constitute wins for the prison-reform movement, these states have all refused to pair these closures with substantial reductions to the number of people they lock up. Without both releasing incarcerated people—beginning with the hundreds of thousands of people whose continued incarceration, data show, does not prevent violence and instead actually leads to increased crime—and addressing the front-end criminalization of poverty, officials are simply relocating and concentrating the problem of chronic overcrowding.

Such piecemeal reforms detached from a vision and pragmatic plan for more transformative changes are exacerbating and prolonging untenable health and safety conditions in jails and prisons. Putting facilities like Rikers into federal receivership—that is, under the control of federal, rather than state or city, authorities—without addressing root causes is likely to do the same. Although this would allow federal actors to bypass current laws, local politicians, and correctional officers’ union contracts that are obstructing the jail from meeting its constitutional obligations, it would again sideline the fact that U.S. jails are harmful by design, not aberration.

As legal scholar and criminologist Mark Findlay wrote four decades ago when mass incarceration was still in its infancy, “As long as prison reformers attempt to work within the existing correctional system to reform it, reform will be dissipated as the reformers inevitably are conditioned to accept the retention of the basic correctional structure in exchange for minor revisions.”

What reformism ignores is that it is the intrinsic conditions of incarceration itself that harm the health and safety of incarcerated people, staff, and the public writ large. Consider, for example, that even before COVID-19 supercharged the harm inflicted by incarceration, one study estimated that an incarcerated person loses two years of future life for each year spent locked up; another study calculated roughly five years of life expectancy lost by age 40 alone. And these life-shortening consequences of incarceration also affect family members, communities, and, ultimately, the entire country. When one in three Black men in the U.S. are incarcerated during their lifetimes and men of all backgrounds face an 11% lifetime likelihood of incarceration, the sheer scale of harm inflicted by the U.S. punishment system is difficult to fathom.

Read more: The True History of America’s Private Prison Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic, by turning the long-standing violence of incarceration into a plague for us all, has put a long-repressed reality into stark relief. Conditions inside jails, prisons, and criminalized neighborhoods cannot be separated from the health of broader communities. As a consequence, lawmakers’ ostensible attempts to build public safety via shortsighted systems of segregation like incarceration are doomed to boomerang back as multiplying harm for everyone.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic jails and prisons have operated as epidemic engines that multiply and spread disease throughout surrounding communities. My own research, for example, indicates that jail-related spread of the coronavirus has driven millions of COVID-19 cases and tens of thousands of deaths. This epidemiological dynamic long predates COVID-19 and, if we fail to make major changes, will continue long after the present pandemic has passed.

The truth is the system of policing and incarceration that has been promoted as the centerpiece of U.S. “public safety” policy for the last half-century is, in reality, fundamentally incompatible with shared safety. This cannot be fixed through superficial bureaucratic rearrangements, such as hiring private contractors as short-term guards, bringing in the National Guard, using CARES Act funding to build yet more jails and prisons, further increasing funding for police, putting abusive facilities under the control of the federal government, or closing the worst jails or prisons only to shift incarcerated people from one harmful context to another.

In defense of his proposed jail reforms and bid to retain city control of Rikers, Mayor Adams’ Corrections Department commissioner, Louis Molina, claims that “change must come from within” and not via external interventions. By contrast, advocates for abolitional justice like Angela Davis, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba emphasize that systems built on racist, violent premises cannot yield genuine solutions. As they point out, to suggest that we must place our trust in the U.S. carceral system to fix itself reflects, at best, profound naivete and historical ignorance. At the more realistic worst, it reflects a callous strategy used by those in power to hold onto their positions regardless of the human costs.

To wake from our national carceral nightmare will require forcing large-scale decarceration upon unwilling system administrators, like Commissioner Molina and Mayor Adams and their counterparts nationwide. As endorsed in consensus expert recommendations for decarceration issued by both the National Academies and the American Public Health Association, this means investing in the release and reentry into society of approximately 1 million people whose ongoing confinement serves no plausible public interest. It also means investing in decriminalization, housing, and non-police public safety systems––like a national community health worker corps––in order to stop cycles of counterproductive arrests. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence for the rational necessity of such action, however, politicians who fear appearing “soft on crime” have refused to take responsibility for implementing change.

On the rare occasions in which carceral abuse garners significant media attention, policymakers—both Republicans and Democrats—along with judges, prosecutors, and prison officials typically respond by expressing shock, as if they had never before heard of the barbaric reality of these systems. Next, these public officials issue empty calls for incremental reform until the problem again fades from public view.

Similarly, in a period of ongoing emergency inside jails and prisons, federal and local officials are repeatedly lamenting their supposed powerlessness while refusing to make use of the decarceration tools at their disposal. President Biden has failed to show leadership; instead, he is repeating what’s brought us to this point. And Congress has done no better, refusing to enact genuine public safety policies, such as those outlined under The BREATHE Act framework that reallocates funding from failed policing and prison models and redirects it towards supportive social services that are far more effective at preventing violence. When key pieces of such paradigm-shifting legislation—such as The People’s Response Act and The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act—have been introduced, they’ve been largely ignored. Meanwhile, as mass shootings decimate yet more families and communities with each passing week, preventable death continues undeterred by either police or the specter of prisons.

It’s long past time that we confront the absurdity of spending approximately $280 billion of taxpayer dollars on policing and punishment annually and another $768 billion for militaristic delusions of “national security” while hundreds of thousands of Americans are killed each year as a result of grossly deficient health, labor, and welfare systems that, in turn, fuel endless carceral loops. The fact is that there will be no possibility of safety in the U.S. until we abolish our indefensible carceral system and build in its place the public infrastructures required to reverse a half-century of persistent investments in cruelty rather than care.

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