Construction of the new state prison west of I-80 in Salt Lake
Construction of the new state prison west of I-80 in Salt Lake

With the rise of COVID-19, we are adapting quickly to new realities. With changes to the way we go to school, work, or access social services, it is a good time to reconsider how our criminal justice system operates. For decades, the US has seen a boom in prison building that has far surpassed community needs. The consequences of such short-sighted punitive responses are especially harming our communities of color, people who are undocumented, our disabled community, and those who are financially insecure or experience insecure housing. It’s time to re-imagine how we structure our economy and promote our well-being, as this crisis reveals the gaps where our systems we’ve created do not meet our needs when it matters the most.

This past week we have seen many members of our Utah community step it up to reach out to others who are in need during this crisis. A mutual aid group has raised over $20,000 to reach people through solidarity work, and celebrity Ty Burrell has created a fund for servers who are now out of work with the closure of many restaurants and bars. There are many cases of businesses raising money to support nurses or neighbors coming together to make sure they have their needs covered. Utah is acting in ways that show our interdependency, as though our fates are intertwined. Let’s now extend our solidarity to reach the people in our community who are often overlooked: those who remain locked behind bars.

People incarcerated, and the staff who work at jails and prisons, are at incredible risk of a rapid spread of COVID-19. In Utah, there are upwards of 30,000 people who are being involuntarily held or monitored by the criminaljustice system: be they in state, private, or federal prisons; county jails; or those who are on probation or parole. Those who are locked up live in closed and confined areas, and experience unsanitary conditions of all kinds. There is no way to social distance, and much of the population consists of people over the age of 51, disabled folks, and others who are immunocompromised. Inmates are at the highest risk of medical mistreatment and neglect. An overcrowded system will only intensify an already spiraling crisis. Nurses at the Weber County Jail are already overwhelmed.

While folks are self-quarantined, we need to confront the harmful role of policing and prisons during this event. Policing was declared a public health issue by the American Public Health Association in 2018 in this situation these risks are only exaggerated, and the cost will likely be paid by marginalized communities. In cities around the world on lockdown, we’re hearing reports of police giving fines for going out past curfew or for holding events with more than 10 people. The Department of Justice has asked to waive our civil liberties and keep people detained indefinitely during this crisis. We are at risk of reacting in authoritarian ways that not only encroach on our essential rights, but exacerbate economic instability and inequality at the same time.

Once the virus hits our incarcerated folks it should come as no surprise to see how rapidly this crisis may spread. Time is of the essence: it is important we act both swiftly and in line with a long-term vision toward prison abolition. Salt Lake and other counties are already pre-emptively acting by releasing low-level offenders, but we must go much further to reduce our incarcerated population. After all, despite many stigmas that they face, these are our extended brothers and sisters that face struggles and have the right to heal.

In sum, we should be focused on decarceration, or releasing and diverting people away from the criminal justice system as much as possible, being mindful of medical guidelines of social distancing and reduced contact. From Ohio to Ireland, all over the world government officials are taking the appropriate steps needed to ensure the safety of their people and releasing upwards of 85,000 incarcerated folks in Iran alone. The 250 or so people in Utah said to be released is not enough when there are still tens of thousands who could face the brunt of the pandemic. Utah should consider implementing the following measures:

  • Release everyone who has supportive housing and whose sentences will end in the next year. Further, we should release all determined to be at low-risk of reoffending, including those who are serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences.

  • Immediate release of everyone who is immunocompromised or is above the age of 60. We should also release all youth serving in juvenile detention centers across the valley who have supportive housing.

  • Release everyone being held in county jails pre-trial. Allow people to release on their own recognizance.

  • End all ICE raids and detentions and immediately reunite families with one another.

  • Cease all police citations. The police are at high risk of spreading the disease as they interact with people, issuing citations or responding to emergency calls. Contact with the police puts our community at greater risk of spreading this infection. To address domestic violence, safe houses should continue to operate during quarantine to ensure victims of abuse have a secure place to reside. Therapists could offer emergency virtual mediation meetings, and we can continue to build transformative justice methods for dealing with interpersonal harm.

  • Cancel all probation meetings. Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every person held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations.

  • Do not charge inmates for co-pays or medical supplies. Medical attention in the prison is already difficult to access. Inmates should have free testing and supportive services should the virus break out inside. They need access to medical grade soap, showers, and sanitary hand-washing facilities.

  • End charges for all phone and video calls. Right now inmates in Utah supposedly have access to 10 free phone calls for 15 minutes each, after which regular charges kick in. Visitation is a huge factor in reduced recidivism rates and can improve an inmates overall morale and connection to a support system. All video and phone calls should be provided free of charge during this time.

  • Offer emergency Medicaid coverage to anyone uninsured. This includes folks whose benefits have lapsed or expired from prior coverage.

  • Halt construction of the new state prison near the airport until earthquake, environmental, and health risk factors are properly assessed. The new state prison hosts a number of environmental risks, most of which have gone unaddressed as concerns have risen over the proposed development of the nearby inland port.

As we continue in this crisis it is clear which services are vital and which ones are superfluous: caging people continues to be an unnecessary punishment and one that does not promote ultimate community health and safety. It’s time we prioritize how to reduce our inmate populations to mitigate further harm, and provide material relief to people who need it the most. Diverting people from this system altogether is the best way to provide support for our community going forward. We should also take this moment as an opportunity to grow transformative justice practices and alternative means of interpersonal healing that promote community well-being over punitive justice.