For decades now, prison overcrowding due to mass incarceration and a sluggish justice system has been a growing social issue. Recently, many consequences of this long-standing problem have been exposed and exacerbated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just two months ago, a report published by UCSF and UC Berkeley reported that within certain prisons, COVID-19 infection rates are up to 14 times higher than that of state populations; these are super-spreading environments.
Between the months of March 2020 and December 2021, there were more than 50,000 documented cases of COVID-19 among California inmates, along with 16,000 cases among prison staff.
This cannot continue.
Prisons have reportedly found it difficult to implement COVID-19 prevention strategies, such as mask mandates and vaccination requirements. The spread is worsened especially because inmates with symptoms are often wary and untrusting of health care providers. This is a direct reflection of the prison system itself and emphasizes how basic needs are often not met in these correctional facilities.
While long-standing issues within our prison system should have been addressed years ago, we must establish reforms now especially — starting by reducing prison populations and minimizing the revolving door effect.
It has been reported that two-thirds of incarcerated people in California return to prison within three years of their release, a manifestation of the revolving prison door effect. A study conducted on a Norwegian model reflecting the same issue speculates that the revolving prison population is due to the emphasis of institutional aspects of incarcerated life.
The billions of dollars that taxpayers pour into state correctional facilities every year would be better directed toward truly preventing violence and aiding previously incarcerated people in making a full transition to society, rather than keeping these individuals, who are disproportionately Black, locked up.
Moreover, there are currently more than 120,000 total inmates in California alone, with 13 out of the 35 state-owned facilities operating beyond their capacities. The fact is, their imprisonment offers little benefit for public safety.
The American justice system’s main purpose should be to rehabilitate people who have committed crimes. Systemic injustices are hindering this purpose.
Instead of contributing to the unsafe, overcrowded environment of prisons, we should make better use of prison diversion programs and alternatives pointed toward preventing recidivism, such as community-building programs within prisons.
We must also direct a portion of these funds toward providing past offenders a smoother transition back into society. Federal and state-funded reentry programs involving workshops, mental health support and continual support near the end of a sentence would encourage this, especially programs developed by non-profit organizations such as the California Reentry Program.
It’s time for community-building, educational and rehabilitative alternatives to be employed.