COVID-19 is impacting our jails and prisons at a higher rate than any other area in the US. As someone who has been incarcerated, I know from experience that our systems are not set up to combat any type of virus like this. There are not opportunities to social distance and those necessary cleaning supplies and sanitary items are contraband in most jails and prisons.
To get a more in-depth look into the health crisis that is happening in the jails and prisons, I consulted Dr. Meghan Novisky, Assistant Professor of Criminology at Cleveland State University. Her research on health in prisons includes over 13 months interviewing over 300 men who were 50 years or older in the PA prison system. When she visited the prisons to conduct interviews, many of the staff and corrections officers laughed at her questions about what happens when inmates get very sick. “‘Nobody cares about these people; why are you asking about that?’”
Dr. Novisky has been a leader during the COVID-19 pandemic, educating those who have the power to make decisions. She wants them not to make a decision because it feels good or what they think is the right thing to do, but because the statistics show that this is what is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus in the jails and prisons. She believes that it is important for those who are in prison to be humanized. For too long, those who are in prison are just looked at as a number; as if they are cattle being herded.
Early release is possible to those who fit the criteria for medical furloughs, which a lot of states have, or compassionate release that the federal government uses. This is a mechanism that was created to help those who are at end of life because of medical conditions or treatment needed that can’t be provided in the institutions.
A journalist posed the question to Dr. Novisky about the potential of a crime spike when you release these older individuals. Her response is priceless. “I am a criminologist and I have yet to hear of an elderly crime wave, period. Yet alone people in their 60’s and 70’s who have severe medical problems.”
Who has gotten a handle on COVID-19 the best when it deals with those who are incarcerated? It is actually the county jails. The sheriffs of each county have made the tough decision, but the right one, to release individuals who are at risk. According to the Prison Policy Initiative as of May 15, 2020, the percentage of incarcerated individuals released from county jails was around 30%, from DOCs 5%, and only about 300 compassionate releases from the BOP.
Dr. Novisky shared with me what the stats look like in Ohio. She stated that the Cuyahoga County Jail, which includes Cleveland, has done a good job of releasing those who are vulnerable. Of the 1,900 individuals who were incarcerated, 600 were released. The Ohio DOC is doing much less. They have released 200 incarcerated individuals out of a total incarcerated population of over 49,000 individuals – less than .5%.
Fear-mongering is a common theme in political discourse around this issue. The infamous “Willie Horton” case is an example of what Dr. Novisky asserts are statistically rare incidents that are cited to block furlough and release efforts. To combat this narrative, we need to look at the data that has been collected by criminologists about recidivism and look at life course theory models which demonstrate people aging out of crime.
Dr. Novisky also raises the question of the cruel and unusual impact that coronavirus can have on inmates, regardless of the nature of their offense. Most of the incarcerated individuals in Ohio have not been given a death sentence by the court, and yet inaction is sentencing them to death. Those incarcerated have the right not to be treated with cruel and unusual punishment – in this case, not allowing the prisons to demonstrate deliberate indifference towards their health. The staff have to make efforts to address the health needs of this population.
The ACLU has been integral in lawsuits that incarcerated individuals are filing against local, state, and federal governments. A federal judge ruled that there needed to be 800 vulnerable men released from Elkton, a federal prison in Ohio, but that ruling was not followed by the prison. One-fifth of the individuals at Elkton have been infected, with 9 deaths, and there is no way to social distance because the housing is dormitory style. The beds are typically within 2 feet of each other. Dr. Novisky shares, “These men do not want to forgo their sentence or be pardoned. They just want to either be on home confinement or be transferred to a safer facility. Both of these options would still have them under the authority of the BOP.” Aided by Dr. Novisky, the ACLU of Ohio’s class action lawsuit was brought before the United States Supreme Court. Her content expert declaration outlined the research about incarceration during COVID-19, stating it is not safe to stay at the level of incarceration. The lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful.
Another aspect of this crisis that demonstrates our society’s disregard for those incarcerated is the production of PPE (personal protective equipment) and hand sanitizer using prison labor, including in New York and Alabama. Dr. Novisky points out that this is another example of exploitative labor in the prison system, signaling inmates’ “sub-human” status. “They’re good enough to make and distribute these products, but they can’t protect themselves,” she explains. In addition, inmates are paid unfathomably low wages for prison labor – a mid-range wage is usually less than 50 cents per hour.
Dr. Novisky asserts that correctional health is public health. If there were no staff going into prisons, then there wouldn’t be COVID-19 in the prisons. Staff coming and going is how coronavirus was introduced into prisons; staff still coming and going not only puts those in prison at risk but puts the communities where they live at a higher risk. It is necessary to protect those who are incarcerated, both for their sake and for the safety of the broader public. This can only be done by reducing the jail and prison population in order to meet the levels of safety currently required in every other facet of public life – an imperative given that the coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon.
By: David Garlock
Criminal Justice Activist, Returning Citizen and Public Speaker
David L. Garlock is a successful returning citizen, reentry professional, and criminal justice reform advocate. David and his brother received 25-year sentences in Alabama after taking the life of their abuser. A client of Equal Justice Initiative, he was released on parole in 2013 after serving more than 13 years and pursuing several educational opportunities while incarcerated. He subsequently obtained his bachelor's degree from Eastern University and was the Lancaster Program Director for New Person Ministries, a reentry program for men who have committed sex offenses and other returning citizens, from 2017-2020. David graduated from JustLeadershipUSA’s Leading with Conviction fellowship program in 2019. He is also Co-Chair of the Board for the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization and a member of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council, a statewide coalition of county reentry organizations. David enjoys educating the next generation of criminal justice professionals on rehabilitation and advocating in various spheres for an effective and equitable justice system. He is a frequent speaker at colleges and universities, criminal and social justice conferences, and community events, and he appeared in the film Just Mercy (2020). David resides in Coatesville, PA with his family, where they enjoy serving with their local church.