Smart Decarceration for Incarcerated Populations: Advocacy During COVID-19
Apryl Alexander, Associate Professor, University of Denver
The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released several recommendations to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, including hand washing, covering coughs, and social/physical distancing. But are these public health recommendations applicable to those who are incarcerated? Currently, there are over 1.4 million adults in the United States who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons and over 80,000 individuals who are incarcerated in local jails (not including juvenile and ICE detention facilities). Correctional settings are often deprived, overcrowded, and unsanitary environments, which do not lend themselves to the prevention or recovery from COVID-19. Incarcerated individuals are at a much higher risk to become infected due to a variety of factors, such as generally higher rates of chronic conditions than the community and overall lack of screening for certain illnesses.
Smart aims to reduce incarceration and maximize public safety and well-being while addressing disparities in the criminal legal system. Psychologists can aid in advocacy efforts to create policy change focused on smart , the most well-known type of which is compassionate release. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 allows for early release from prison, based on “extraordinary and compelling circumstances.” Compassionate release is typically granted for those with serious or terminal illness, severe cognitive impairment, or functional disability making them too impaired to pose a threat to the public. Scholars have argued that COVID-19 should qualify as “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” for incarcerated individuals, particularly those who are elderly (one of the fastest growing groups in prisons), have high medical needs, or are immuno-compromised. In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also see smart as a racial justice issue. People of color are the most vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19, while also being overrepresented in the criminal legal system.
Lastly, though we have centered the wellbeing of incarcerated individuals, it is important to recognize that staff in these facilities are often considered “essential personnel” due to the nature of their work and understaffing, which places them and their families at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. In the United States, essential personnel are also more likely to be people of color. There have been numerous cases of COVID-19 among staff; therefore, these public health approaches can also protect staff.
Although the CDC has recommended the prioritization of incarcerated populations regarding vaccines, some jurisdictions did not comply with public health guidance. Therefore, those in correctional settings are still among the most vulnerable. In Colorado, correctional staff members and any persons interacting with incarcerated populations are required to be fully vaccinated by October 31, 2021. By aiming for smart during this COVID-19 pandemic, scholars and practitioners can help in resolving several major societal concerns in promoting community safety, reducing the prison and jail populations, and advocating for racial justice.
Adapted from: Alexander, A. A., , H., & , H. (2020). Sick and shut in: Incarceration during a public health crisis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 60(5), 647-656. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167820930556