Special Briefing: Could Coronavirus Help Us Improve Our Prisons?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because crime will never go away.
By Dan Peleschuk
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? As governments worldwide struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, they’re faced with a bewildering array of dilemmas. Among the lesser-noticed of them: What do we do with prisons? From Tehran to Ohio, jails in hard-hit countries — described as “petri dishes” for their crowded, infection-friendly environments — are beginning to send some low-risk inmates home. But that’s just a temporary solution to a problem the World Health Organization warned today will grow far larger.
Why does it matter? From finding ways to trim the incarcerated population to improving treatment of those still on the inside, the various measures authorities take during this pandemic could pay major dividends for the future. They’ll face a key question: Are we better off locking up society’s offenders, or showing them more compassion?
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Home free. Iran grabbed global headlines earlier this month when it temporarily freed tens of thousands of prisoners as the coronavirus outbreak spiraled out of control. The U.S. followed suit: More than a dozen states have freed thousands of low-level, sick and elderly prisoners. But those left locked up — and the staff members tasked with guarding them — face impending shortages of everything from soap to medical facilities. “We’re all headed for some dire consequences,” one former prison warden told the Wall Street Journal. In New York City alone, 38 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19; disgraced Hollywood producer and convicted sexual assailant Harvey Weinstein is reportedly among them.
Chance for change. As prison officials and rights advocates push for an urgent response to the imminent challenge, many are already finding solutions. Jails in Arizona and Minnesota, for instance, have waived medical co-pays and fees for personal hygiene supplies — partially meeting a longstanding demand for better, more sanitary conditions in prisons. Elsewhere, such as in Maine and Oklahoma, courts have dropped or suspended warrants for petty offenses like unpaid fines or white-collar and property crimes. If the pandemic is “a magnifying glass for all the problems in the criminal justice system,” according to one public defender, then maybe it’s an opportunity for America’s long-beleaguered incarceration system to do some serious soul-searching.
Cutting crime — or encouraging it? Meanwhile, some are wondering what effects the pandemic will have on the prevalence of law-breaking. In New York, for instance, it’s a mixed picture: The second week of March saw a mere 9 percent increase in crime compared to the same week last year — notable, observers say, because the city has otherwise seen a 20 percent surge this year. But then there’s a recent Norwegian study that suggests recently laid-off workers are 20 percent more likely to commit criminal offenses in the first year they’re jobless. Perhaps more disturbing? Across North America, gun and ammunition sales are through the roof these days as people worry they’ll need to defend themselves. The day U.S. COVID-19 cases broke 1,000, Ammo.com reported a 276 percent spike in sales that lasted throughout the week. “They’re coming apart at the seams, these people,” one New Jersey store owner told the Newark Star-Ledger.
WHAT TO READ
Coronavirus Is a Disaster for UK Prisons. Releasing the Harmless Now Will Save Lives, by Eric Allison in The Guardian
“When serving time, I experienced a few hairy moments, occasions when I felt my actions would lead to my physical harm. But my biggest fear, always, was suffering a serious illness.”
Inside Law Enforcement’s Coronavirus Slowdown, by Pilar Melendez in the Daily Beast
“New struggles to enforce old laws are popping up around the country right now, as daily operations of the criminal justice system have increasingly ground to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”
WHAT TO WATCH
US Prisons Not Prepared for Coronavirus Crisis, Experts Warn
“The challenge for courts is going to be when you have a pandemic that potentially affects everyone. You can’t open up all the jails like Iran reportedly did.”
Watch on NBC News on YouTube:
Colombia Coronavirus: 23 Killed in Prison Riot
“The next morning, inmates’ family members clashed with the police outside the prison, demanding information.”
Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Party’s over. Preventative measures don’t always pay off: In Brazil, hundreds of prisoners escaped from four low-security prisons last week after being told their facilities would cancel the upcoming Easter holiday break, during which they would’ve been allowed to leave temporarily. It’s unclear how many were later recaptured.
- Dan Peleschuk