Over the past two years, more people have died in US prisons than in the entire history of observations. And as the second year of Joe Biden’s presidency begins, a sobering reality has already become apparent: under his administration, instead of moving towards the end of the system of excessive incarceration, we are witnessing the beginning of a new prison boom.
At the beginning of the pandemic, public health experts sounded the alarm that the world’s largest U.S. prison system poses a serious threat to national public health. It was correctly predicted that if large-scale changes are not implemented immediately, US prisons will become a hotbed for the spread of diseases that will infect millions and kill at least tens of thousands of people across the country. Overcrowded detention facilities were already well known from past epidemics as incubators functioning like a Petri dish for the spread of infectious diseases. Therefore, it is not surprising that by September 2021, prisons accounted for 90 of the 100 largest outbreaks of the epidemic in America and spread COVID-19 far beyond their walls.
In his speech at the US Conference of Mayors, Biden again made his position very clear when he said: “We should not cut funding for police departments. I offered to increase funding.” Reflecting this thoughtful policy stance, in addition to allocating $651 million in his 2022 budget to increase local police hiring, the Biden administration has repeatedly called on state and local governments to use the $350 billion in discretionary funds provided to them by the American Rescue Plan to expand police budgets. Indeed, both Biden and his representatives proudly touted their signed anti-COVID bill as a major incentive for policing in a national context that is already characterized by globally unprecedented spending on policing.
Given Biden’s long career in deceptively combining punishment with public safety, his campaign promises to reduce the number of federal prisons by more than half were encouraging. Unfortunately, there are still no improvements. During his administration, the prison population in federal prisons increased for the first time in a decade, which led to the cancellation of minor successes achieved under President Donald Trump. So is the number of people detained in immigration detention centers, which has increased by 70 percent since Biden took office. In the era of the pandemic, the prison population has declined. But almost all of this was due to random logistical disruptions in the foreground (for example, court closures, delays in sentencing, stops in transferring from prison to prison, etc.), which slowed down the admission of new prisoners, and not because of the release of those already serving their sentences. As a result, when the pandemic-related disruptions in day-to-day legal proceedings cease, the prison population is likely to increase as a large number of pending cases are dealt with.
Given the deterioration of the conditions of detention of prisoners, an increase in funding for state law enforcement agencies looks the least rational. Along with the protests against police brutality, over the past two years there have been more reports in the media about the terrible, violating human rights and freedoms conditions in prisons than since the uprising of prisoners at the Attica Correctional Institution in upstate New York 50 years ago. From the spectacular brutality on Rikers Island in New York and the heinous abuses at the Harris County Jail in Houston to the deadly conditions in prisons in Texas, Alabama, Florida or Georgia, brutality behind bars has provoked universal condemnation. But during the short ascent of these stories to the forefront of news cycles, lawmakers viewed each of them as a one-time shock to America’s moral sensibilities, and not as a systemic problem requiring a systematic solution.
The long and ongoing history of ill-treatment of prisoners clearly shows that the very conditions of detention are harmful to the health and safety of prisoners, staff and the public at large. Even before COVID-19, researchers estimated that a prison sentence takes the lives of millions of people. Experts have estimated that the number of years that penitentiary institutions continue to take away from people even after they have “served their time” ranges from two to five years for each year spent locked up. This harm also applies to family members of prisoners whose life expectancy is 2.6 years less than that of their peers, from whom the American legal system has not taken away brothers and sisters, children, fathers or mothers. And, as recent studies have shown, as a result of high incarceration rates in America, the health of entire communities ultimately suffers.
Incarceration, which, as numerous data show, does not actually prevent crime and does not increase collective security, increases mortality at the district level from both infectious and non-communicable diseases. For people who have been held in institutions with extremely poor medical care, incarceration exacerbates chronic diseases, which in turn affects their families and loved ones, contributing to the spread of infectious diseases throughout the community, such as influenza, HIV and hepatitis C. This dynamic exacerbates racial and class inequality. Every third black man finds himself behind bars at least once during his life. Men of all races face an 11 percent chance of life in prison, and more than 70 million people live with criminal records. It is difficult to overestimate the extent of the harm caused by the American system of punishments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned this problem into a catastrophe. Millions of Americans have fallen ill with COVID-19 due to the epidemiological situation in prisons. It should now be obvious that, regardless of whether you care about human rights or racial justice, mass incarceration is fundamentally incompatible with national public health, public safety and pandemic preparedness.
It shouldn’t be like this. Lawmakers should enact ambitious changes, rather than retreat before empty calls for reforms that secretly delay what America clearly needs: large-scale, safe incarceration measures combined with well-funded release support systems. Congress must confront the utter absurdity of spending at least $277 billion of taxpayers on policing and prisons every year and $768 billion on militaristic fantasies of “national security” while the country’s security is being destroyed by grossly inadequate investments in health and social security systems that are far more deadly than any war in American history. In addition to passing responsible legislation, American officials – from Biden and state governors to judges, prosecutors, mayors, sheriffs and parole boards – must use their existing powers to release hundreds of thousands of people whose continued imprisonment does not affect public safety in any way.
Biden should also take immediate steps to reduce the number of federal prisons. So far, he has not granted a single petition for clemency out of 18492 lying on his desk. At a time of an ongoing pandemic, coupled with an escalating crisis in U.S. prisons, a mass pardon should be for many the first step toward a decarceral agenda that could still define Biden’s presidency. In order to turn the historical period of suffering of the United States into an incentive for real change, Biden and the Democratic Party led by him must stop calling for change in words, and in practice change the failed policy of punishment. If the US president won’t do this, he will continue to lead the growing prison boom and prove that his long-standing legacy of a staunch supporter of the “tough fight against crime” policy is alive and well, even if thousands of Americans pay for this life.