Prison Policy Initiative Discusses Safety in Prison

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With jails considering major policy changes as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing a troubling question from allies with a little less experience on criminal justice issues: Given that jails provide valuable social services, wouldn’t it be bad to release people who need services? Aren’t the homeless, the mentally ill, or people with substance use disorders better off in jail?

In a word: No.

The longer answer is that even in the best of times, jails are not good at providing health and social services. Although local jails are filled with people who need medical care and social services, jails have repeatedly failed to provide these services. As a result, many people end up cycling in and out of jail without ever receiving the help they need. For example, even though a disproportionate number of people in jails have mental health disorders, jails have repeatedly failed to provide adequate mental healthcare. People with mental health disorders are often put in solitary confinement, have limited access to counseling, and not checked on regularly due to staffing shortages. The tragic result of these failures is that suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails.

Similarly, jails consistently fail to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated people. Notably, although two-thirds of people in local jails have a substance use disorder, most jails and prisons refuse to provide medication assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder—the gold standard for care. Moreover, substandard healthcare has had lethal consequences. For example, CNN recently published a scathing investigation into WellPath (formerly Correct Care Solutions), one of the country’s largest jail healthcare providers. They found that WellPath provides substandard healthcare that led to more than 70 preventable deaths in local jails between 2014 and 2018.

It’s absolutely true that people in the criminal justice system have a lot of ignored needs. But we shouldn’t misconstrue the “services” offered in jails as reasons to keep people confined in what are always harmful conditions. Given that many people in local jails have health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to this new coronavirus, and simple precautions like social distancing are nearly impossible behind bars, it is vital that we release anyone from jail who doesn’t need to be there. For many, it will be a matter of life or death.