Release inmates to keep COVID-19 from spreading behind bars

STATE AFFAIRS: Without the proper resources to ensure inmate safety, state officials need to release more prisoners

Illustration of prison inmate walking to hotel
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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California has one of the highest state prison populations, with a whopping 122,000 people behind bars. Jails and prisons double as petri dishes for COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, since this is an environment that renders social distancing impossible, bans hand sanitizer and limits access to toilet paper. Thus, most prisoners are left helpless and unable to control their own health. Although California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently released 3,500 inmates who were ready for parole and had committed nonviolent offenses, this is just a dent in the state’s overall prison population. In order to slow the rate of infection, California needs to consider a large-scale release from county and state prisons.

Time is ticking. As of April 12, 15 inmates at Santa Rita Jail tested positive for the coronavirus, and that number is likely an undercount given an overall lack of testing and the virus’s transmission speed. In California’s crowded and unsanitary correctional facilities, workers pose a significant risk to inmates. If state officials have exhausted the release of those who committed nonviolent crimes and have a reduced likelihood of recidivism, then it’s time to evaluate another group of prisoners: those who no longer pose a serious threat to the population. Without the release of these additional inmates, it is unlikely that the state will have enough vacancy, staff and protective equipment to effectively mitigate the spread of the virus.

Although some opponents may feel unsettled at the prospect of releasing thousands of more inmates, the relationship between high prison populations and rapidly increasing positive tests is crystal clear. Considering that hospitals are already strapped for protective equipment, beds and various life-saving resources, now is not the time to keep the status quo in prisons. If California is committed to keeping inmates behind bars, then it needs to be committed to securing medical staff and resources to ensure their safety.

Keeping inmates in prison is expensive, however. If more prisoners are released,  facilities can allocate more funds to ensure the safety of their personnel and remaining inmates, creating a greater possibility for adequate social distancing measures to take place. Additionally, for previously incarcerated individuals who may be homeless, Newsom has implemented “Project Roomkey,” designed to provide hotel rooms as protection from the coronavirus for the state’s vulnerable population. In the long run, releasing more inmates is both a timely and effective solution to slowing the spread of the virus.

Prisoners are members of our community and are equally deserving of the same resources to protect their health. Ramping up on inmate releases is the first step in slowing the virus’s progression and giving inmates a better chance of staying safe.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2020 opinion editor, Simmy Khetpal.