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Cut the Carceral System Now

Brett Merrell
A protest outside Broome County Jail, Binghamton, New York, June 4, 2020

Jails and prisons are not natural features of the rural American landscape. Mass incarceration was built state by state, county by county. Today, carceral responses—policing, jail, and state supervision—are proposed as ostensible solutions to almost every social and economic problem in the United States.

Since the killing of George Floyd by police a little over a week ago, people across the country have been rising up against police brutality, and highlighting the relationships between policing, systemic racism, poverty, and mass criminalization. As people from Louisville, Kentucky, to Duluth, Minnesota, and from Los Angeles to New York City protest police violence, they have been met with escalating police violence. And as people advocate defunding the police and prisons, in favor of reallocating funds to communities, they have been faced with heavily resourced and militarized police forces.

Even before this past week, carceral institutions have been in the news as the prison and jail boom of the past forty years has intensified the damage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mass incarceration has a devastating effect on public health. For the past two decades, as counties across the country have built new jails, the rural US experienced a wave of hospital and mental health facility closures. In rural Washington County, New York, where I am writing from, there are two state prisons. An abandoned hospital looms on the hill above town—closed in 2003, the same year the county built a new, larger jail.

New York State is typical of the country’s larger trend, in which prisons have in the last few decades become synonymous with economic development in many rural communities. State governments built prisons in rural areas that were often experiencing deindustrialization or agricultural restructuring with the promise of new jobs. Between 1982 and 2000, thirty-nine new prisons were erected, all of them in rural upstate counties, changing the meaning of economic development in the state. Like much of the country, upstate New York faces the pandemic and Depression-level unemployment with, simultaneously, an underfunded social infrastructure and a massive investment in keeping thousands of people locked up.

Before the pandemic, there were more than two million people in prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers across the country. And for decades before the onset of the pandemic, counties, states, and the federal government built a vast and sprawling carceral infrastructure. As we focus on flattening the curve of the Covid-19 pandemic and struggle over the shape of the new normal, mass incarceration—which leaves the US, and rural areas in particular, uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic—is at the center of America’s inadequate response.

Today in the United States, there are nearly 2,000 state and federal prisons, over 2,970 local jails, and 218 immigrant detention centers. There can be no meaningful social distancing in prisons and jails, which have become the sites of ten of the top fifteen Covid-19 clusters in the country, as tracked by the New York Times in their effort to understand the concentrated spread of disease in factories, churches, and institutions. The biggest hotspot is the Marion Correctional Institution, a state prison in rural Ohio where 80 percent of the incarcerated population—more than 2,400 people—have tested positive for Covid-19. Ohio’s state prison population is almost 50,000 and yet the state made almost no effort to release people; the population declined by only eleven people by March 31.

No prison system in the US, in fact, has moved to decarcerate in any way commensurate to the lethal dangers that prisons create for the people who spend time in them, or for surrounding communities, many of them rural and lacking health-care infrastructure after decades of state investment in prisons and jails. Prisons are, in effect, dense cities locked behind razor wire, but they are not isolated. In the time of Covid-19, prison guards and staff, also unable to socially distance at work, risk being vectors both in prisons and in communities where the prisons are often the biggest employer.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
The construction of the Bare Hill Correctional Facility in rural Franklin County, New York, June 1, 1998

In May, the Vera Institute of Justice, where I am a researcher, released a report showing that the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons decreased 2.2 percent between December 2018 and 2019, a continuation of a decline that’s been ongoing since the peak prison population in 2009. Over the past decade, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons has declined 11 percent in the US. While most states have fewer people in prison, some states—such as Alabama and Idaho—have more. The incarceration curve in many states has flattened or declined relatively slightly compared to the exponential increases of the 1980s and 1990s. But these decreases in overall state prison populations conceal the fact that an increasing number of people locked up are women, and that in many states, county jails are being used to incarcerate state prisoners and immigrant detainees, a sort of shell game which results in, among other things, increased investment in local jails.

In the US, however, high rates of incarceration have become the norm, even with fewer people in prison, and while some counties have let people out of their jails since the onset of the pandemic, the responses from state and federal prison systems range on a spectrum from inadequate to nonexistent. In an internal document obtained by the independent news site AL.com in April, the Alabama Department of Corrections planned to respond to the anticipated infections and deaths in its growing prison system not by releasing people, but by ordering body bags and calling in the National Guard as additional staff.

As the virus continues to spread throughout the country, state and federal prison populations have declined only 1.6 percent through the end of March, which means that around 22,000 people have been released from a system of more than 1.4 million. Public health experts recommend that the only way to slow the spread of the virus in prisons is to release people, and governors and other officials have the power to quickly and significantly reduce incarceration through clemency or parole. Yet, according to recent surveys, state and federal prison incarceration rates have hardly moved at all during the mounting Covid-19 crisis. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, reduced its prison population by just 300 people in the first three months of the pandemic, a decline of a mere 0.2 percent.

When jurisdictions do release people, the focus has been on pre-trial detainees and those with nonviolent offenses, a calculation that excludes over fifty-five percent of people incarcerated in state prisons. Kentucky is among the states that have released the most people from its state prison system, about 10 percent by early May. In contrast, Kentucky reduced the number of people held pretrial or serving jail sentences in county jails by 52 percent between January 2 and April 30, from 11,600 to 5,600 people, a decrease that a few months ago might have been considered unthinkable but that demonstrates the power that state and local governments have to free people. In the context of general state inaction, community bail funds like the Louisville Community Bail Fund and the New York Immigration Freedom Fund, have stepped in to organize to get people out of jail and detention.

Prison abolitionists have been pointing out for decades that the US’s prison system is not broken, but is in fact accomplishing what it was designed to do, which is to incapacitate and make disposable large segments of the population—in particular, poor people and people of color—as a way of managing growing inequality. The current pandemic has been clarifying in this regard. A recent ACLU study, modeling the future effects of Covid-19, predicts that the US may have up to 100,000 additional deaths in this pandemic thanks to high jail incarceration rates in the US. (This study did not estimate the impact of such rates specifically in rural areas, although rural America has the highest burden of incarceration and the fewest public health resources. The ACLU study also did not estimate the effect of the 1,800 state and federal prisons’ holding 1.4 million people across the country.)

Jack Norton
An abandoned hospital in rural Washington County, New York, 2020

Prisons and jails are harmful and oppressive to so many, and people across the US are rising up against police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, and disparities in health care and outcomes. Decades of high incarceration rates suggest that much of the country has become habituated to widespread poverty and early death, even before Covid-19. Indeed, many people and businesses have tied their economic and political fortunes to rising incarceration rates. At the same time, forty years of building prisons and jails has left much of rural America without the infrastructure needed to address a pandemic.

Today, state leaders across the country have within their power the ability to save lives and reorganize public resources by letting people out of jails and prisons, and defunding police forces across the country. Urgent measures to release people from incarceration, address immediate public health risks, and answer the demands of tens of thousands of protesters in the streets, must be the first steps toward liberation on a much broader scale.