By Chuck Pyle

These are troubling and scary times as we face an international pandemic and persistent national protests against the fatal consequences of the racial injustice of law enforcement in the United States. It is an even scarier time if you are incarcerated or have loved ones who are.

Following numerous outbreaks of the coronavirus at federal prisons and immigration detention facilities, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate held a hearing on June 2, 2020, On Examining Best Practices for Incarceration and Detention During COVID-19. During the hearing, Sen. Kamala Harris stated, “When we are having this discussion, this is not only about the failure to protect detained people from coronavirus and in that way a humanitarian issue, it is also a racial justice issue, and we have to acknowledge it as such.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative recently did a survey to determine how states have responded to COVID-19 in its jails and prisons and found that nine states were given a grade of D-, with 41 states receiving a failing grade. Clearly, we are failing to meet both the humanitarian and racial justice issues presented by COVID-19 in our prisons where, as of June 22, 2020, at least 570 incarcerated people and 50 correctional staff have died of COVID-19-related causes.

A logical and widely recommended strategy to reduce the spread of infection in jails and prisons is to decarcerate – to substantially reduce the size of our jail and prison populations. This would remove people from these crowded and unsanitary spaces and leave more room and flexibility for those left to live and work there. Jails have seen significant reductions in populations because, in consideration of social distancing, law enforcement is making far fewer arrests. However, most states have resisted releasing people from prison in response to the epidemic.

In early April, the Oregon Department of Corrections identified 2,836 inmates as having met the criteria for possible early release, but Oregon prosecutors opposed “the mass release of prisoners because it was potentially damaging to crime victims.” It is doubtful that any significant percentage of the 2,836 prisoners had convictions with identifiable victims, but this ill-reasoned pressure from prosecutors led Gov. Kate Brown on April 14, 2020 to decide not to release any prisoners. Subsequently, Oregon’s maximum security prison became the site of that state’s largest outbreak of COVID-19.

Between February and June 2020, Arizona’s prison population of about 41,000 was reduced by less than 200 as Gov. Doug Ducey refused to release prisoners early in response to the COVID-19 crisis. By July, Arizona had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, and 12 state prisoners had died of COVID-19-related causes.

This reluctance to release prisoners in response to a crisis is particularly troubling when the need to reverse the harms of mass incarceration has been widely recognized in recent years. Additionally, there has been a national problem of prisons being unable to fill correction officer positions. A December 1, 2019 National Institute of Justice report indicated some states reporting 50 percent correctional officer vacancy rates and officer turnover rates as high as 55 percent.

While lack of progress at reversing mass incarceration incarceration has been disappointing, failing to decarcerate is unacceptable. There are severe and dangerous staffing shortages, a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus pandemic, and persistent, widespread protests against the racial injustice of our system to enforce our criminal laws, disproportionately imprisoning people of color.

NADA has always appreciated and responded to the interconnection between health and social justice, going back to the early days of Lincoln Detox. These troubled times desperately call for that understanding. The NADA community needs to advocate widely and forcefully that considerations of humanity and racial justice must finally overcome fear so that significant numbers of people can be removed from prison and returned safely to community.

We also need to coordinate with service providers, nonprofits, churches, and families of incarcerated people to show political decision-makers that we are prepared to support those who are released in that difficult transition. In Arizona, I am advocating that 10 percent of the state prison population (approximately 4,000 prisoners) be released within 90 days and 20 percent of the prison population be released within one year. My main goal is to get the prison population below 30,000 within two years.

NADA is an important part of the behavioral health response to the trauma of pervasive racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the failing and unresponsive corrections system. For now, we may need to rely more on beads and seeds than needles, but we must stay involved. In this time of the collision and interplay of multiple crises, all of us need a zone of peace, and our communities need everyone finding their own inner strengths to contribute to our quest for healing, recovery and justice. Let us find our voice, empty our prisons and comfort our communities with beads, seeds and compassion. 

To contact: pyle.charles@gmail.com

This article comes from Guidepoints News from NADA Spring 2020 Issue. Sign-up to receive Guidepoints in your inbox quarterly. The Guidepoints newsletter is the only publication devoted to the sharing and dissemination of our NADA work on an international scale. Become a member to opt-in for a print copy. Check-out past issues.

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