DECARCERATE: A Public Health Priority

Most of America’s 2.3 million prisoners cannot practice social distancing. They are packed into overcrowded facilities, living, sleeping and bathing within feet — sometimes inches — of each other.

What’s more, they lack basics including soap, warm water and clean towels, let alone hand sanitizer. Unless radical action is taken, many thousands of people inside — staff and prisoners alike — will needlessly die.

The radical action required — the only one that can prevent massive unnecessary loss of life — is reducing the population of jails and prisons. Efforts in this direction have begun in many jurisdictions.

But the steps taken so far are not nearly enough, not by a long shot. All public officials with release authority — including sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, corrections officials, parole boards, and governors — need to step up and immediately find ways to release as many people as they can before the virus strikes.

In doing so, they have the opportunity both to save thousands of lives and begin the long overdue process of ending the costly, inhumane and counterproductive project of mass incarceration.

In the 1970s, the size of the American prisoner population was roughly on par with other Western democracies. Yet starting in the 1980s, the U.S. became the world’s biggest jailer, jamming incarcerated people into dormitories and doubling them up in small cells in open disregard for their health and wellbeing.