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COVID-19 demonstrates why we must end mass incarceration

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This year’s 49th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising comes at a time when COVID-19 rages inside our nation’s jails and prisons and the case against mass incarceration has never been more clear. The Attica Prison Uprising took place in September 1971, and it is widely recognized as the birth of the modern prisoners’ rights movement. During the uprising, nearly 1,300 incarcerated people seized control of Attica Correctional Facility in Upstate New York to negotiate better conditions and treatment from corrections officers and prison officials.

The uprising’s leaders issued a series of demands including an end to rampant racist abuse, dangerous overcrowding and unsafe working conditions at the prison, and ensuring that their rights to religious freedom would be respected and that they would receive reasonable pay for their labor. The uprising lasted five days and ended with a brutal raid conducted by corrections officers, the National Guard, and state police. More than 40 people died during the insurrection, most of them killed by law enforcement. 

The calamity brought national attention to inhumane prison conditions and helped lead to the establishment of the ACLU’s National Prison Project in 1972. Today, the National Prison Project works to ensure that confinement conditions are consistent with health, safety, and human dignity and that the rights of incarcerated people are protected.  

A great deal of progress has been made on many of these issues since the early 1970s, but the advent of mass incarceration has also accompanied this progress. Today there are 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States compared to roughly 197,000 in 1970. As a result, the United States now accounts for more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population while representing just four percent of its total population. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the cruelty and misery associated with mass incarceration into sharp relief. Correctional facilities account for 90 percent of the nation’s top COVID-19 hotspots, resulting in more than 121,000 confirmed cases among incarcerated people, and more than 1,000 recorded deaths. These facilities aren’t just serving as vectors of community spread for the disease. They are putting the lives of countless incarcerated people, corrections officers and community members at unnecessary risk.   

Many of these trends are the result of extreme overcrowding caused by mass incarceration. Even in standard times, overcrowded facilities are more violent and provide less access to medical care for incarcerated people. These facilities are also notorious for providing only limited access to basic sanitation supplies, including toilet paper, soap and hand sanitizer. Severe overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and inadequate medical care were all major catalysts for the Attica Prison Uprising. The pandemic demonstrates how these unsafe conditions continue to plague the criminal justice system today.

Unfortunately, there are almost no elected officials in the United States that have reacted to this crisis by implementing truly widespread, safe decarceration measures at a scale that would help alleviate the problem. Instead, federal, state and local officials have frequently relied on prolonged solitary confinement as a form of pandemic response. This is a practice that the United Nations and many leading human rights experts have said can amount to torture, causing severe mental and physical health complications for survivors. 

Before COVID-19, there were an estimated 60,000 people held in solitary confinement each day in the United States. By May 2020, that number had exploded to more than 300,000 people — an increase of 500 percent. Medical experts and public health officials have repeatedly warned that system-wide lockdowns and other forms of solitary confinement exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 by leaving incarcerated people afraid to seek treatment or report their symptoms.  

This response should be alarming to everyone. Our nation’s political leadership must stop clinging to the outdated ideologies and old ways of thinking that brought us mass incarceration, and they must instead begin following the advice and guidance of public health officials. The fact that so many of our nation’s jails and prisons are currently the sites of an ongoing and accelerating humanitarian crisis ought to be viewed not only as a tragedy but also as a national disgrace. Now is not the time to go backward. We can — and we must — do better than this. 

David Fathi is the director at the ACLU National Prison Project.

Tags Criminal law Decarceration in the United States Mentally ill people in United States jails and prisons Prison–industrial complex Punishments Solitary confinement

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