The Atlantic

Releasing People From Prison Is Easier Said Than Done

As the pandemic threatens the lives of those behind bars, the country must confront a system that has never had rehabilitation as its priority.
Source: Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty

If the coronavirus were to design its ideal home, it would build a prison. Inmates are packed together day and night; social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and mask wearing are fantasies. Many inmates are old, sick, and prone to infection. Most prisons are operating near capacity; some house more prisoners than they were built for. The five largest clusters of the virus are in prisons; in Marion County, Ohio, 95 percent of inmates tested positive.

The stark and irrefutable images of police officers killing Black men and women for small infractions have sparked protests and a larger rethinking of how America treats people who cross paths with the criminal-justice system. Even before the killing of George Floyd, the public and politicians had grown troubled by a less visible but still shocking death toll behind bars, where inmates are trapped as the virus spreads, effectively turning their prison sentences into death sentences. How do we stem the wave of infections? The answer, according to many advocates, is simple: Release prisoners.

Some governors, alarmed at the deaths in prisons and jails and worried about the risk to surrounding communities, are listening—sort of, with an ear attuned to the political liability. More than half of the states have agreed to release people convicted of low-level crimes, people who are nearing the end of their sentences, or people who merit compassionate release, such as pregnant people or older, vulnerable inmates.

“It’s been helpful. I know that people have gotten out, and I am moved by their release,” says Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a research organization that campaigns for sentencing reform. “But none of it has been substantial. And what I hope this moment tells us is that our incarceration rate is a function of politics—because there are many questions about who needs to be incarcerated.”

“We’re barely scraping the surface,” says Abbe Smith, a professor at Georgetown Law School and the author of Guilty People. “Even if we release the low-hanging fruit,” Smith says—what she calls the “non non non”: nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex offenders—“that wouldn’t make a dent.”

[Barbara Bradley Hagerty: Innocent prisoners are going to die of the coronavirus]

To meaningfully reduce America’s prison population and slow the pandemic will require cutting away not just fat but muscle, releasing not just nonviolent drug offenders but those convicted of violent crimes. The difficulty of doing so, in both practical and moral terms, is enormous. Which people convicted of

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