Incarceration in the age of COVID-19: Grace, mercy, & evidence-based practices
*This piece originally appeared in the April 2020 edition of The Columbus & Dayton African American News Journal
As Ohio’s COVID-19 crisis grows, so does concern about its impact on people living and working behind bars. Many Ohioans are understandably worried about their incarcerated loved ones. They are desperately seeking information and assurances of safety, but Governor DeWine has not included jails, prisons and detention centers in his robust statewide response like he has with nursing homes or schools.
As Ohioans band together to lift up family and community, our leaders can’t forget those who live and work in our prisons and jails. In the short-term, state leaders must implement safety precautions for people who are incarcerated and correctional employees. In the long- term, Ohio policymakers must reform the criminal justice system so fewer people are punished by being put behind bars.
This crisis makes clear that Ohio needs long-lasting criminal justice reform, not just as a short-term act of grace and mercy, but as a fundamental acknowledgment that we over-incarcerate our neighbors. Overcrowded prisons and jails are breeding grounds for disease and that puts all our communities at risk. Senate Bill 3, stalled mostly by Republic inaction, would reduce our prison population by reclassifying small level drug possessions into misdemeanors. When the legislature returns to its normal functions, lawmakers should pass the bill.
Why Race Matters
Policy Matters Researcher Piet van Lier has written about the particular ways people who are incarcerated are at risk for COVID-19. “Incarcerated people are more likely to have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19,” he said. “Because disease can spread quickly in crowded jails and prisons, they’re likely to produce large numbers of patients at the same time, overwhelming not only institutional healthcare systems but the capacity of nearby hospitals to which they may be transferred.” People who work in prisons or jails can catch the disease there and bring it home to their families and communities.
Racism in the criminal justice system, disparities in health care, toxic stress and many other structural factors make African Americans particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. In 2018, the last year for which numbers are available, approximately 79,000 Ohioans were incarcerated in state and federal prisons, local jails, and youth facilities – a disproportionate share of whom are African Americans. To a lesser degree, Black people are also overrepresented disproportionally among correctional officers.
“Black people already face disproportionate health issues when compared to whites. Our community is already at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses, which ultimately will make Blacks bigger targets for contracting and succumbing to the coronavirus,” said Dr. Stephanie Miles-Richardson, assistant dean for Graduate Education in Public Health at Morehouse School of Medicine. She says the Black community must practice “preventative measures that are crucial for our survival.”
Incarcerated Ohioans and the people working in our jails and prisons cannot practice social distancing. Swift and decisive action from the DeWine Administration may not only save the lives of those in the corrections system, but their families and communities as well.
Another concern is the lack of medical capacity in Ohio’s youth detention facilities. More than 20% of youth in Department of Youth Services facilities are incarcerated for a nonviolent property crime. “Children should not be incarcerated to begin with” said Juvenile Justice Coalition Policy Director Kenza Kamal. “Leaving them in these conditions, during a pandemic unlike anything we’ve ever seen, should not even be an option.” Returning youth back to their families is the safest thing for them and for the entire community.
Gov. Mike DeWine and his administration have acted quickly, thoughtfully and compassionately to protect Ohioans during the coronavirus outbreak. By issuing a stay-at-home order, closing schools, restaurants and other gathering places, and postponing the primary election, DeWine has helped slow the virus’s spread so our hospitals won’t be as overwhelmed. DeWine has allowed his response to be guided by proven, evidence-based practices. But he is overlooking the incarcerated adults and children in Ohio’s prisons, jails, detention centers and halfway houses.
Some local authorities are taking steps to address this looming crisis. Courts and law enforcement authorities in Cuyahoga, Erie, Franklin, Hamilton, Richland and Summit counties are working to reduce the number of people in jail.
The DeWine Administration can build on these actions. All people, whether they are in their homes or being held in a jail or prison, have the right to be safe and cared for during the COVID-19 outbreak. This looming crisis demands a response that treats everyone in a just and humane way. The new statewide ban on face-to-face visitation is particularly concerning as incarcerated people and their families must pay for video visits and calls, if these options are allowed at all.
To address this crisis, the DeWine administration, the Ohio Supreme Court and the state legislature can develop a coordinated state-wide response that is executed by county judges, corrections facilities and local law enforcement authorities. Recommendations include the following:
- Release, at minimum, those who are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses with fewer than 90 days left to serve, and people being held because they couldn't make bail.
- Release youth who are currently detained or incarcerated and halt the incarceration of additional youth.
- Stop detaining people before their trials for nonviolent offenses.
- Decrease the number of people being incarcerated who don't require immediate confinement, especially by eliminating cash bail and using alternative sentences for people facing nonviolent charges.
- Stop incarcerating people for technical violations of probation and parole such as failure to pay a fine, loss of employment, or a missed curfew.
- Review for release vulnerable individuals, particularly the elderly and those who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater danger of succumbing to COVID-19.
- Corrections officials can provide free video visits at least until in-person visitation is restored.
- Suspend enforcement of probation conditions that require travel, social interaction, and which cost families money.
Call to Action
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Administrative and Presiding Judge Brendan Sheehan said COVID-19 will eventually arrive in the county jail. “If that virus hits our jail, our jail will not be able to operate, and everything will be crippled,” he told Cleveland.com
Gov. DeWine and the professionals leading Ohio’s COVID-19 response must extend the scientifically led, family-focused, compassionate response to those who are in our prison and jails. While individual counties are acting, a time like this calls for strong state leadership. It is in Ohio’s best interest to act now, while keeping an eye on long term restorative change for our communities. Immediately reducing our prison population and returning to Senate Bill 3 are the best ways to ensure we learn our lessons and make lasting, meaningful change to our criminal justice system.