COVID-19 pandemic makes the case for significant prison reform

Philadelphia’s reduction of its prison populations amid the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to fight for real prison reform in the future.


Philadelphia county has the highest incarceration rate of any large jurisdiction in the country, even after years of prison reform and efforts to reduce the incarcerated population, according to the Safety and Justice Challenge, a group of local leaders working to safely reduce the prison population.

So when COVID-19 began spreading across the nation, jails and prisons were at an elevated risk of spreading the virus due to the unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and lack of adequate medical attention, according to the Center for American Progress. In Philadelphia prisons, COVID-19 was spreading at five times the rate of the rest of the city, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

On April 7, Philadelphia’s First Judicial District began ruling on dozens of emergency motions with the intent to reduce the prison and county jail population amid the pandemic, WHYY reported.

More than 230 inmates — many of whom are nonviolent offenders, have served their minimum sentence or were being held on low-level charges or on cash bail — were released within just three days, the Inquirer further reported.

The reduction of the city’s prison population is by all means necessary in order to protect the safety of the incarcerated population. Nevertheless, this sudden and relatively simple process of emancipation amid COVID-19 begs the question: what’s next for prison reform?

Our criminal justice system is broken and overpopulated. Our current pandemic demonstrates that prison conditions are unsanitary, and it gives us an opportunity to advocate for real prison reform.

It prompts us to ask how we can make the prison system more humane.

“In a time of crisis, we’re seeing how quickly change can happen and how this need to release those who fall under certain categories that the public will be comfortable releasing, I think it’s a testament to the change that can happen and that needs to happen,” said Abbie Henson, a Ph.D. candidate in criminal justice at Temple University.

First, we need to set up systems for recently incarcerated individuals to help them safely integrate into society with the economic and health care resources they need. While re-integration is already a difficult process for many formerly incarcerated people, those struggles may be exacerbated amid a pandemic and a global economic recession.

“The most impacted, or the most economically and socially disadvantaged populations, are going to be the ones hit hardest by this pandemic,” said Matthew Ellis Simmons, an instructor and Ph.D. candidate of Africology and African American studies.

Many recently incarcerated individuals are struggling to find work during the current pandemic, ABC News reported. The United States lost more than 700,000 jobs this March as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, USA Today reported.

This makes reintegration into society more difficult, especially considering low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia have a higher per-capita incarceration rate than wealthier neighborhoods, according to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center. In fact, of the 4,411 Philadelphia citizens released from Pennsylvania state prisons in 2016, 91 percent lived in areas experiencing poverty, according to the same Pew Research Center report.

While recently incarcerated individuals may be eligible for a small tax return, they are ultimately ineligible for the federal government’s $1,200 stimulus checks if they were incarcerated during the past two years and were unable to file their taxes during that time, Vox reported.

In addition, many recently incarcerated individuals may be experiencing housing insecurity and a lack of access to medical care upon release, which places them in extreme conditions amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Wired reported

If releasing individuals from prison during this pandemic is meant to protect them from the virus, then why are we placing them in a reintegration system that is ultimately going to fail them? 

Instead, we’re moving them from one danger to another.

Still, Philadelphia prisons are overcrowded, putting people who are incarcerated at continued risk despite some releases. 

Philadelphia has more people serving life-without-parole sentences than any other county in the nation and more than any other country in the world, according to a 2018 report by the Abolitionist Law Center. A striking 84 percent of Philadelphia citizens serving life-without-parole sentences are Black, according to the ALC.

Those individuals serving life-without-parole — or more accurately, “death by incarceration” — sentences won’t be able to escape COVID-19 as it spreads through prisons at exponential rates. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has announced some measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, including screening individuals entering and leaving the facility for flu-like symptoms, encouraging social distancing and providing face masks and cleaning supplies for people who are incarcerated, according to a report by the DOC. The DOC has not disclosed how testing will be conducted.

But incarcerated individuals can’t truly social distance while living in close quarters and overcrowded facilities, and no amount of face masks and sanitation supplies are going to change that, at least not significantly. 

What we need, both now and in the future, is a movement to dramatically decrease the size of our prison population to prevent overcrowding in the first place. Our rates of per-capita incarceration and life-without-parole sentencing are abysmal and inhumane.

The expeditious release of more than 200 incarcerated individuals in just three days is evidence of one thing: we’re willing to enact change in moments of crisis. But our prison system is a crisis — it’s overcrowded and unsanitary, and it does not provide individuals with the proper economic and political resources they need upon release.

Possible reforms can include the elimination of cash bail and changes to our unnecessarily harsh sentencing system, as well as a complete overhaul of the system that we have now, Henson said.

“I think the changes that we’re seeing now, it would be ridiculous to ever go back on them because what we’re seeing is a shift in a direction toward equality,” Henson added. “I would be hopeful that the pendulum could continue to swing that way.”

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we need to be more prepared for emergencies threatening the daily lives and safety of everyone, incarcerated or otherwise. 

With Philadelphia reducing its incarcerated population, we have to ask ourselves what we’re going to do next and the answer has to be widespread prison reform and decarceration.

“I don’t want to go back to normal,” Simmons said. “I want this pandemic, this crisis, to teach us what it means to be humane towards our fellow person.”

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