On March 27, we warned about the urgent need for decarceration of jails and prisons to prevent large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 that would lead to severe illness and death, both within facilities and beyond their walls. Since then, our fears have been realized. On April 5, Michael Tyson, age 53, was the first person on Rikers Island to die from the virus. That same month, COVID-19 ran rampant through jails in Ohio, Chicago, and Houston. By the end of April, eight of the ten largest COVID-19 outbreaks were in jails and prisons and hundreds of people living or working in our nation’s correctional facilities had become seriously ill and died. Now, even with suspected undercounting, the number of infections is well into the thousands and, still, relatively few states have engaged in large-scale prison population reduction through release, allowing COVID-19 to continue its devastating spread through the remaining population and staff and also endangering the communities that surround these facilities.
One common roadblock to release has been the assertion by some policy makers and government officials that decarceration is inappropriate because of a lack of reentry services. They express concerns that, because the economy is flagging and many social services are overwhelmed, people being released from jails and prisons will struggle to find housing and support and are therefore better off incarcerated. Yes, social services and housing are key to successful reentry for many people. But this position undermines the need for a rational public health response to the current crisis, is not solutions-based, and ignores the critical mandate we have as a society to immediately invest in life-saving reentry resources to ensure an appropriate public health response to COVID-19. In short, the pandemic makes it even more important that we engage in the urgent work of decarceration that has been needed for decades and that the current moment demands.