by Katie Busch
The cruelty of the American prison system came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic. Incarcerated persons who were living in cramped, crowded conditions found it virtually impossible to social distance, and limited access to hygiene products exacerbated this vulnerability. In Pennsylvania, the uniquely high age of the prison population increased the dangers of contagion. Incarcerated persons were, and still are, stripped of the autonomy to regulate their own exposure and to exercise control over the risks encountered in their daily lives.
Due to the obvious danger that COVID-19 posed to prison populations, criminal justice experts quickly called for measures to lower the number of persons held in prisons. At the instruction of then-Attorney General Barr, the Bureau of Prisons began reviewing candidates for home confinement. A surge of prisoners began applying for compassionate release, which allows near-death individuals to expunge their sentences and spend their remaining time at home. Out of the 31,000 prisoners who applied to the Bureau of Prisons for compassionate release, only 36 were approved.
Though it is without question that state and federal prisons could have done more to protect their incarcerated populations during the pandemic, a non-trivial number were released. At the federal level, approximately 30,000 people were granted access to home confinement. Though Pennsylvania had no specific plans to release prisoners who had not served their minimum sentences or those who were not up for parole consideration, they have committed to expediting existing release pathways.
30,000 is a small fraction of the approximately 270,000 people currently incarcerated in federal facilities, not to mention the 2.3 million that make up the whole of the American criminal legal system (96,000 of whom are from Pennsylvania). It is also worth noting that this 30,000 figure includes persons who were qualified for release without the pandemic contingencies. However, this action suggests that what we often think of as core aspects of our institutions can be changed.
Admittedly, the home confinement program was not radical. The criteria for release were rather strict. Only particularly medically vulnerable persons were granted leave. A sizable chunk of those released were nearing the end of their sentence, were non-violent offenders, or would regularly have been considered for parole (parole boards actually released fewer incarcerated individuals in 2020 compared to 2019). Nevertheless, it alludes to the potential for significant incentives to drive the improvement of our institutions.
Prison abolition, a movement which pushes for a reimagining of modern criminal legal systems, has existed for decades and has recently garnered national attention. Though not all prison abolitionists agree on what the ideal world should look like, they push for a creative, innovative future that does not include the carceral state as we know it. They challenge conventional justifications for carceral punishment, like the idea that harsh sentencing deters crime or that incarceration is justified retribution for past wrongdoing. Generally, those in favor of prison abolition have cited restorative justice as a viable alternative to incarceration, an approach which prioritizes the mitigation of harm caused by crime through accountability, reconciliation, and community, usually without jail time or incarceration. Prison abolition calls for the examination of what have become accepted tenets of modern American society; they challenge the notion that locking someone up is the best response to the majority of crimes.
Clearly these steps are not anywhere near the future that prison abolitionists envision. Institutions are complex, convoluted beasts that become entrenched in our most natural actions and beliefs. To ask our imaginations to not only question the present but build upon ethereal hopes is certainly a difficult task. We don’t know what a modern society without prisons would look like, but we never will until we get there.
This uncertainty can be unsettling, and these are not easy questions to ask. But it would be a grave mistake to turn away. The harm caused by prisons isn’t some abstract, distant concept; for many, it is immediate and devastating. Widespread incarceration restricts and inflicts pain on people both in and outside of prison walls. It fractures communities and relationships, shatters lives. It is one of the greatest limitations on freedom imaginable.
Crucially, it appears as if these enormous costs may, to a large degree, be pointless. Do prisons really keep us safer when incarceration actually increases instances of recidivism upon release? Is the infliction of harm on perpetrators really in the best interest of victims and society as a whole?
People have been thinking about these questions for some time, and many readings and interviews go further in envisioning what a de-carcerated future would look like. The prison abolition movement revolves around the idea that reform within the current system is not enough; the basic tenets of our criminal legal system need to be deconstructed and rebuilt from the ground up in order to ensure a more humane world. The move towards home confinement during the pandemic was deeply flawed, but it spurs imagination and hints at the possibility of a more just, compassionate future. Whatever this may look like, for the sake of at least acknowledging the deep and debilitating harm that our prisons cause we must own up to the real cost of what we’re inflicting; inaction is not a victimless pursuit. Our situation demands trying, even if the process may not be easy or smooth.
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