Ashish Prashar writes for the Business Insider

Ashish Prashar
Sunday 10th May 2020

Ashish Prashar, Leap Confronting Conflict Trustee, writes for the Business Insider. The title of the article is: If politicians are serious about fighting the pandemic, there's a clear way to do it: release people from jail. Read the article in full below. 

Since American law enforcement caught on to the notion of advertising, the American public, by and large, has bought into their idea that being of "tough on crime" is what's best for our nation and her people.

Sadly, this is far from the truth. The "tough on crime" narrative may well be responsible for election wins, but it will also soon be responsible for the deaths of thousands of healthcare workers and incarcerated persons across the US amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the elderly in care facilities and meatpacking plants, a huge source of outbreaks are in jails and prisons. 

The civil rights issue of our time

The injustice of mass incarceration and our legal system is the civil rights issue of our time. It shouldn't take a global health pandemic to force each state to address its incarceration issue, yet here we are.

The coronavirus is ravaging its way across the globe, hitting dense populations the hardest. First, it was San Francisco and the Bay Area, then New York City; before long, virtually every municipality had ordered its citizens to social distance and shelter-in-place. Our incarcerated brothers and sisters can't social distance or self-isolate and as a result, they fall into the highest bracket of infectious susceptibility. 

In New York, more than 700 prisoners and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 as of last Wednesday. At the Rikers Island jail complex, NYC's biggest correctional facility, the infection rate is 5.4%, meaning an inmate is eight times more likely to get sick than the average New Yorker, according to the Legal Aid Society.

Despite the urgency of the situation, our leaders continue to put thousands of people's lives at risk by trapping them in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. 

Only 51 prisoners with underlying health conditions have been released from Rikers – and these are only inmates jailed on parole technicalities. It's taken this long just to let those highly susceptible individuals, guilty only of being bad at admin, out of jail – despite the severity of this growing health crisis.  

COVID-19 infects in clusters; it does not discriminate between non-violent and violent inmates packed into small cells. Failing to release non-violent offenders to space out prison facilities is tantamount to leading all prisoners and staff like lambs, to the slaughter. Law enforcement must act now.

Ross MacDonald, the chief doctor at Rikers, brilliantly summed up his policy-related frustrations on this impending disaster, tweeting: "It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth, but as a physician, I must tell you it is unlikely" and "I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true."

Our elected officials will be responsible for thousands of deaths if they stand idly by. 

Great in theory, not in practice

Getting "tough on crime" was supposed to rehabilitate society, clear it of repetitively malignant socioeconomic outcomes across communities, and create an elevated feeling of safety. It has done anything but, the results are overcrowded prisons nationwide.

Now during the pandemic, these prisons are nothing more than a hay bale, ready to go up in infectious flames at the moment of the virus' arrival.

Take Cook County Jail in Chicago for example. Even after sending roughly 1,200 people home, more than 350 inmates and guards have tested positive. It's one of the nation's worst outbreaks, prompting attorneys for detainees to sue the sheriff to release more. However, the problem won't end even if more prisoners are granted freedom from the COVID-19 trap of prison. 

Get tough on crime, not communities of color

The WHO has suggested there will be "huge mortality rates" within jails if nothing is done – it is clearly far past time for our leaders to release all non-violent prisoners. So why are our leaders being so slow to act? Because they find it more palatable to turn a blind eye to the deaths this pandemic will pile up in our prisons and jails, rather than treat people who are incarcerated with care and respect. 

Leaders refusing to decarcerate during the pandemic are practicing (yes, practicing) institutional racism and class-based prejudice, underpinned by the belief that prisoners are acceptable targets of indiscriminate anger and disdain. This idea is so ingrained, many are willing to risk worsening the coronavirus crisis to protect it.

In America, African American individuals are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people – representing more than half of incarcerated people in the US, but just 16% of the population. Frankly, people are going to start dying in jails and prisons at extraordinarily high rates because citizens, prosecutors, judges, and our leaders view them as less deserving of life.

Freedom, now

The underlying problem that COVID-19 has exposed is our institutional trigger finger when it comes to locking up humans – especially humans of color.

This overreaction has precipitated our current environment of unjust and improper levels of over-incarceration. If we did the meaningful work of being extra judicious about incarcerating fellow humans in the first place we wouldn't now be scrambling to fight for their release. 

Every public official with the power to de-incarcerate should take this moment as an opportunity to become a part of history. Will they stand up to protect the lives of all citizens by ordering the release of inmates convicted of petty crimes, non-violent offenses, technical (non-criminal) violations, and parole violations?

Or will they stand by and watch as scores of prison workers and inmates die by the hundreds because appearing "tough on crime" eclipsed the value of human life. The ball is in their court, and the time to act is closing, fast. 

Ashish Prashar is the Senior Director of Global Communications for Publicis Sapient, Board Member of New York-based Exodus Transitional Community and Getting Out and Staying Out, and Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts

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