The coronavirus pandemic should be the start, not the end, of criminal justice reform, a California lawmaker says
By Charles Davis for Business Insider
The global outbreak of COVID-19 has many of us rethinking a lot of our priors — our reliance on physical office spaces in the digital age; on health systems that discourage the ill, and contagious, from taking time off to receive care; and on pre-pandemic modes of lockdown, in prisons and jails, that even in the best of times degrade the physical and mental well-being of those inside.
"This is an opportunity for us to reevaluate the systems that we have in place," California Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager told Business Insider.
As chair of the legislative body's Select Committee on Incarcerated Women, Kamlager, elected in 2018 to represent much of South Los Angeles and the Westside, has been urging the state to release vulnerable inmates from the vehicle of contagion that is its prison system.
The alternative, she said, is elderly women, among others, facing a far graver penalty than their actions ever deserved.
"We're running the risk of them dying in prison because of COVID," she said. With many having already served years "because of acts of desperation and poverty," she said, "is that where they should be?"
The risk is not hypothetical. On Wednesday, the California Institution for Women — a prison in the city of Corona that held over 1,600 female inmates, as of December 2019 — went into lockdown, according to inmates, following reports that prison staff had been moving back and forth between prisons with known COVID-19 cases.
Indeed, while the state has barred visitation, it can't bar outsiders from its prisons altogether: some 67,000 outsiders work there, and at least 53 prison officials have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
One incarcerated woman told Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group that advocates for a reduction in prison spending, that staff were not taking the threat seriously.
"They cough without covering their mouths, most wear no face coverings at all, and they cluster on the yard in groups of five or six, high fiving and hugging each other," the woman said.
Romarilyn Ralston is a formerly imprisoned woman who now serves as program coordinator for Project Rebound, a group that helps former detainees transition to life after incarceration. She told Business Insider that the crisis calls for "releasing elderly and vulnerable population," but also for reconsidering the need to subject elderly and vulnerable persons to such harsh conditions in the first place.
"Long before the introduction of COVID-19, health care inside prisons for women, trans, and gender non-conforming people was abysmal," Ralston said. With the pandemic, especially, that can mean "deadly complications."
So far, the state has moved to release 3,500 inmates who were already due to be released within the next 60 days, the Los Angeles Times reported last month. But with a total prison population of around 115,000, the overwhelming majority will remain behind bars.
What is being done to protect them?
In a statement, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it was taking steps to ensure its captive population, among others, were able to obtain personal protective equipment. For example, prison labor was now being utilized to manufacture "reusable cloth barrier masks to meet some of the supply needs of staff and inmates." To date, the spokesperson said, incarcerated workers have made around 17,000 such masks, "with plans to produce 10,000 per day."
Kamlager said state and local governments could be doing a lot more to prevent the spread of infection in what she refers to as "enhanced petri dishes." But there are hopeful signs. "Now, prosecutors are being a little more thoughtful about charges, and about release dates, and about video and telephonic hearings," she noted. As a result, she argued, courts are under less strain from relatively minor cases and better able to deal with more genuine threats to public safety.
So if we see, during a pandemic, that incarcerating fewer people is consistent with maintaining safety, why not continue that even after this era of social distancing?
"What I would hate to see is that we let people out and then, after it's over, they go find those people and round them back up and put them back in," Kamlager said. But she fears some others in the state are preparing for that, and more.
"The undercurrent of so many conversations that I'm hearing is, you know, we should be readying ourselves for an uptick in crime," Kamlager said. "As we continue to deal with the economic pandemic that has been caused from COVID-19," the thinking goes, "and higher numbers of unemployment, that will turn into desperation, and that will turn into higher crime. And so we should sort of batten down the [hatches] right now now, keeping folks in and locking folks up."
That, she maintains, is a recipe for "continued disaster" — reliance on a model of justice that doesn't just fail to rehabilitate, but through a vengeful brand of social isolation actually spreads sickness, serving neither the convicted nor the society that's ostensibly being protected.
"Don't let COVID," she said, "be the start and the stop of change."