COVID-19 Gives Us the Chance to Close Prisons. Here’s Why and How.

In response to the pandemic, prison officials are already reducing inmate populations. Why let a crisis go to waste?

The COVID-19 epidemic has been a disaster for much of the world and especially the United States. Yet it has yielded one dividend: A generational opportunity to roll back mass incarceration.

In a sign that compassion isn’t completely lacking among corrections officials,  vulnerable individuals who might otherwise have died or suffered a severe illness and survived from COVID-19 have been released early. The impact of this early release can be quantified in federal prisons, unlike state facilities, which are slower to report data. As the federal fiscal year ended on October 1, the federal prison population is down over 21,500 inmates to a 20 year-low population of 155,000.  Even considering initiatives to shrink the system by multiple Congresses and the Obama and Trump administrations, COVID-19 produced the largest annual decrease in history.

How can prison reformers not let this crisis go to waste?

The worst mistake would be to assume the change will be lasting.  At the risk of anthropomorphizing them, correctional facilities and the criminal justice system which feeds them, have a survival instinct that drives them to adapt to changing situations.  As plunging crime rates reduced the number of convicted individuals to send to jail, the system has responded by jailing more non-convicted people prior to trial, maintaining the size of the jail population.  The system can just as surely find ways to refill empty prison cells rapidly once COVID-19 slackens.

Every state and federal prison is a hungry mouth to feed. Closing some prisons to reduce the system’s holding capacity would help prevent the prison population from rising again. Private prisons are a leftist bugaboo, but reformers should be very glad for them during the COVID-19 crisis: It’s politically easier to cancel a contract for a private prison than to face down a public sector union at a state or federally run facility.

That said, some public correctional facilities should not be spared the axe.  The logical candidates are decaying facilities that present safety risks to inmates as well as staff.

Nothing can replace the lives that COVID-19 has claimed.  But let’s take advantage of the opportunity the virus presents to kill off mass incarceration.

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.