Prisons constitute mandatory gatherings of thousands of people that, from a public health perspective, are not safe. They are cramped in unsanitary places where people are routinely denied basic health care and hygiene. The onset of COVID-19 on top of current conditions will inevitably result in a human rights crisis unless action is implemented immediately.
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT
The American Prison Industrial Complex currently holds a total of 2.3 million people in state prisons, federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities and local jails. As a result of over-policing and inequitable sentencing, people of color and particularly Black people are incarcerated in numbers far out of proportion to their representation in the population. Of new state prison admissions, 45 percent are due to violations of probation or parole. This staggering number is a result of technical violations. According to The Council of State Governments Justice Center, there are currently 95,000 people locked in cages as a result of technical violations on any given day.
The number of people ages 65 and over in prison—those who are considered the most vulnerable to COVID- 19—grew 94 times faster than the sentenced prisoner population between 2007 and 2010. While the total prison population increased by 0.7 percent, the senior prison population increased by 63 percent. The continuance to keep seniors and other vulnerable individuals incarcerated denies their 8th Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment and endangers the life of everyone inside the prison. Our nation’s overcrowded prisons and jails are public health catastrophes in the making— catastrophes that will take a particular toll in communities of color.
WHAT SHOULD POLICY MAKERS DO?
To avert catastrophe and reduce the harm of COVID-19, the NAACP recommends the following:
Reduce the Prison Population
- Eliminate prison sentences or arrests for misdemeanor convictions.
- Establish criteria for people who have reached their minimum dates and are now parole-eligible, including a presumption of parole for individuals who have been free of misconduct for a designated time or have demonstrated rehabilitation in other measurable ways. Expedite parole hearings for all incarcerated people. Waive hearings for people meeting the categories of presumption of parole.
- Implement emergency measures to release the elderly, people incarcerated for violating technical terms of probation, and those with comorbidities and complex medical needs as quickly and safely as possible.
- Re-establish a system of furlough. In societies around the world, mass furloughs have been issued to combat COVID-19.
Provide Free Health Care, Health Information and Health Education in Prisons
- Ensure updated information is actively given to all incarcerated people and corrections staff members on preventative measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Institute enhanced cleaning protocols for all correctional institutions to reduce the presence of the coronavirus on surfaces inside of prisons.
- Incentivize physicians in communities surrounding state prisons to assist in treating incarcerated people who contract COVID-19.
- Encourage individuals in the criminal legal system to seek treatment if they show symptoms of COVID-19.
Address Mental Health Needs in Prisons
- Increase access to mental health services ensuring incarcerated people receive the necessary level of care in the COVID-19 environment.
- Quickly implement a video visiting platform where video/virtual visits can be conducted from home. It is imperative that people are allowed to stay connected with family during this time.
Support Successful And Safe Re-Entry
- Include emergency measures to make sure people released from incarceration have access to enhanced re-entry support, including housing, mental health, and other critical supports.
- Mandate Medicaid suspension, rather than cancelation, to reduce delays in accessing healthcare and healthcare benefits upon release.