As the Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, spreads throughout the world, many are left scrambling to adjust to new lifestyles. Unfortunately, a handful of people don’t have much of a choice when it comes to their living situations. Inmates have to abide by the rules of the system, and while this virus continues to spread, this has become a problem for them.
COVID-19 in Prisons
Around the world, people are practicing social distancing and proper sanitization. Another safety precaution people are taking is simply staying at home to avoid all contact. The only people who don’t have that right to avoid contact are prisoners. Many inmates spend almost every part of their day near each other with very little sanitization opportunities.
“COVID-19 is forcing us to seriously consider what constitutes a genuine public safety threat,” said Police Major Neill Franklin, executive director at the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “Criminalizing people for marijuana has always been a waste of time and resources; now it’s also unnecessarily endangering lives by exposing more people to the crowded and unsanitary conditions of our jails and prisons.”
As a result, a handful of prisons are experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19 amongst both prisoners and staff. New York City, the current epicenter of the virus, has reported at least 52 inmates and 30 staff members to test positive for COVID-19.
To reduce the number of inmates infected by this virus, several organizations have written an open letter addressing this issue. These organizations include:
- The Marijuana Policy Project
- Last Prisoner Project
- Law Enforcement Action Partnership
- Clergy for a New Drug Policy
- Doctors for Cannabis Regulation
- National Cannabis Industry Association
- Students for Sensible Drug Policy
- National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)
How to Fix the Problem
Their solution is simple. First, stop making arrests for minor marijuana offenses. This includes possession, cultivation, and sale of cannabis products. Second, is to release current inmates that only have minor marijuana arrests on their record. By doing this, the jail system will be less congested and inmates will less likely contract the virus. Pennsylvania, Ohio, other national organizations have already begun to implement these solutions.
“There is no justification for arresting and jailing individuals for marijuana offenses during this crisis,” said Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project. “It is in the best interest of law enforcement and the greater population to cease marijuana arrests and reduce arrests for non-violent crimes. It is also vital for individuals who are incarcerated for cannabis offenses to be released or granted clemency in order to prevent a potentially disastrous and deathly situation.”
Another reason why these solutions would slow down the infection is that it would limit contact between potentially infected police officers and the innocent. Police officers are instructed to stay at home if they are feeling sick. However, some officers may be asymptomatic, or not showing any symptoms at all. These people can still infect anyone within their reach.
These solutions were sent out to several organizations that could potentially do something about this issue. Recipients of the letter include:
- National District Attorneys Association
- The National Governors Association
- National Sheriffs’ Association
- The National Association of Chiefs of Police
- National Correctional Industries Association
- American Correctional Association
Unfortunately, something like this will take a while to go into effect, if passed. There are many sides to this debate, which will only delay the solution further. Hopefully, lawmakers will see that this is a matter of health and safety.
At a time like this, a solution is necessary. However, the government can’t simply release inmates and stop making arrests because of a letter. On paper, the idea makes a lot of sense and would help prevent the spread of the virus. On the other hand, a lot of potential complications may arise if the police stop arresting for marijuana crimes.
All we can hope for is these organizations give these solutions a chance. The best possible solution is a compromise. Some cities, such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New York City, have already begun to release inmates with non-violent, drug-related offenses. Hopefully, more cities follow suit to give inmates a better chance of survival.