Washington, DC (March 4, 2020) – The modern American way of criminal justice — mass incarceration on a scale exceeding both the absolute and per capita incarceration numbers of virtually every nation on earth — has set the stage for potentially catastrophic consequences in light of the emerging COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic affecting the globe.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “[t]he American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” These are not fixed populations. As recently as 2017, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics(BJS), more than 10 million people a year, or close to 1 million people a month, are admitted into America’s jails alone — jails that averaged an overall weekly inmate turnover rate of 54%. Some 20% of America’s jails operated at or above 100% capacity at mid-year 2017. And according to a 2015 BJS special report, a 2011-12 survey revealed that “an estimated 40% of state and federal prisoners and jail inmates reported having a current chronic medical condition[.]”
“Over the years, there have been numerous, well-documented public health and safety failures in American detention facilities – at the federal, state, and local levels. Unfortunately, given the volume of incarcerated people in America, the conditions under which they are detained, and the current spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is every reason to question whether American detention facilities, as a whole, are up to this challenge,” said National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) President Nina J. Ginsberg. “NACDL is calling for the prompt implementation of comprehensive, concrete, and transparent COVID-19 coronavirus readiness plans for the nation’s prisons, jails, and other detention facilities. To the extent those plans remain inchoate, NACDL strongly urges all relevant authorities to make this an immediate priority of the utmost urgency and to coordinate with leading public health experts at every stage. These plans must include transparency, not just vis-à-vis incarcerated persons and staff at detention facilities, but also as concerns their loved ones, their communities, and the communities in which these facilities are located. People are concerned, and there is absolutely no substitute for full transparency.”
“Government authorities, the bar, advocates, and indeed all people in America should stand up today, tomorrow, and every day to demand that the health and safety of individuals detained in our name is a top priority,” said Pat Cresta-Savage, Chair of NACDL’s Corrections Committee.