New Jersey just took a major step toward protecting the public from the coronavirus. It ordered the release of nearly 1,000 low-level offenders in county jails – which represents about one-tenth of the jail population.
This makes good sense. Jails and prisons are breeding grounds for viral diseases.
People in prison live on top of each other. They eat communally, have recreation communally, and are packed into cells often originally designed for one person. There is no such thing as social distancing in prison.
Then there is the reality of prison conditions. Prison facilities are notoriously filthy. Sinks may be broken or not in use. Bathrooms are shared among many. Soap is not always available. Access to tissues and toilet paper may be limited. Alcohol-based hand-sanitizer (the kind recommended by the Centers for Disease Control) is considered contraband in some prisons because of the high alcohol content. Cleaning supplies – including basic bleach – are hard to come by.
On top of the unsanitary conditions, health care behind bars is notoriously bad, with understaffed, overwhelmed and sometimes indifferent medical providers. People in prison who get sick often stay sick – or get sicker — without proper access to health care. In a pandemic, this is doubly true.
Some prisons have taken to imposing solitary confinement on every person in prison or jail. But let’s be clear. Solitary confinement is considered torture in most of the developed world. That draconian measure should not be anyone’s “go-to” move for containing the spread of coronavirus.
New Jersey is to be commended for releasing low-level offenders from jails. They should also consider releasing incarcerated people in jails and prisons who are elderly, ill, or immunocompromised, as well as individuals nearing the end of their prison terms while maintaining conditions of parole and probation. These moves will protect the people who work in correctional facilities, people who are incarcerated, their families and ultimately the society-at-large.
One sure way to limit the spread of coronavirus is to reduce the overall prison and jail population. Other states and the federal government would be well-advised to take New Jersey’s lead.