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. The extraordinary coverage about the cruelty behind bars provoked condemnation from all corners. 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. National news media, federal authorities and Rikers continue to scrutinize Rikers. They are mostly ignoring the fact Rikers conditions are much closer to the norm in U.S. carceral institutions than they are to Rikers.
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. In the two most tragic years of American prisons’ history, large numbers of them have proven incapable of meeting their legal obligations and providing safe conditions to those who are held within their doors. Before the outbreak, every state reported an inability of hiring sufficient staff to maintain basic safety. Since then, this situation has gotten worse.
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. Solitary confinement is considered torture by the U.N. if it’s extended beyond 15 days. This has been a standard procedure within U.S. prisons for many years. Inmates are more likely to commit suicide, homicide, or neglect of medical emergency, as well as suffer from a lack of health care. In the absence of data and auditing systems and incentive to conceal abuses inside prisons and bars, it is certain that they will be much worse than what appears on paper.
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Many officials responded by doing what New York City proposed for Rikers, which is to close dysfunctional facilities and re-distribute those they have. In the past year, 12 states have shut down prisons due to staff shortages, reports of violence and systematic abuse and generalized disorder. These closures may seem like a win for prison reform, but these states refused to reduce the number of prisoners they have locked 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.
These fragmented reforms, which do not include a plan and vision for greater transformative change, are causing and perpetuating unsafe conditions inside 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.”
Reformism fails to recognize that the inherent conditions of incarceration are what cause harm to the safety and health of staff and prisoners alike. Take, for instance, the fact that COVID-19 was not able to supercharge the harm done by incarceration. A study showed that an inmate loses 2 years of their life each year that they’re locked up, while another found roughly 5 years less life expectancy for those who are 40 or older. These life-threatening consequences of imprisonment also impact family members and communities as well as the country. The U.S.’s punishment system causes so much harm that one-third of Black men are in prison during their lives and this is true for all races.
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COVID-19’s pandemic has made a long-awaited reality visible. It transformed the violence that is incarceration into an epidemic for all. The health and well-being of the wider community cannot be separate from conditions in jails or prisons. 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.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, jails and prisons were used as an epidemic engine to spread diseases throughout nearby communities. Research I have done shows that the spread of coronavirus in jails has resulted in millions of cases of COVID-19 and many deaths. The epidemiological dynamics of the coronavirus predates COVID-19, and if there are not major changes made, it will persist long after this pandemic is over.
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. These problems cannot be solved by bureaucratic reorganizations, like hiring short-term guards from private companies, bringing in National Guard personnel, and using CARES Act funds to create more prisons and jails. This will increase funding for police.
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. Advocates for abolishing justice such as Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore stress that systems built upon racist, violent premises can’t produce genuine solutions. They point out that to say we should trust the U.S. carceral systems to solve our problems is a sign of historical ignorance and profound naivete. The worst case scenario is that it shows a barbaric strategy by the powerful to preserve their power, regardless of its human consequences.
We must force large-scale decarceration on unwilling system administrators like Mayor Adams and Commissioner Molina in order to wake up from the national carceral nightmare. This means that approximately one million individuals who are being held indefinitely in solitary confinement do not serve the public’s best interests should be released and allowed to rejoin society. 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. Then, they make inane calls for incremental reform to keep the problem from returning to public attention.
In a similar fashion, the federal and local authorities are constantly lamenting their powerlessness in an ongoing crisis inside prisons. They refuse to use decarceration tools they have at their disposal. President Biden has failed to show leadership; instead, he is repeating what’s brought us to this point. Congress is not doing better. They have refused to enact real public safety policies such as the ones outlined in The BREATHE Act Framework. This framework redirects funding away from prison and failed policing models, and instead directs it toward supportive social services, which are much more effective in 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. While mass shootings are continuing to kill more people and families each week, police have not stopped the preventable deaths from happening.
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. There will not be safety in America unless we eliminate our deplorable carceral system, and instead build the infrastructures necessary to reverse half a century of insidious investments in cruelty over care.
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