Guest Column: Prison reform in the age of COVID-19


Guest columnist Will Cooper urges for the release of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic and prison reform. 

Will Cooper

Over 60,000 prisoners in the U.S. have been infected by COVID-19. And the number of infections is rising at an alarming rate. This gratuitous suffering and death — helpless people trapped in large numbers as the virus engulfs their close quarters — is a tragedy. 

The widespread release of vulnerable and nonviolent prisoners must happen. Right now.

Yet the COVID-19 emergency only scratches the surface of the deficiencies in the American prison system. It has numerous fundamental problems.

First, the conditions in U.S. prisons have long been terrible. Our prisons are often overcrowdedunderresourced and, lacking in concerned public scrutiny, without proper oversight.

In 2019, for example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a harrowing report detailing the conditions in Alabama’s prisons. “The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision.” There was, the DOJ continued, “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.”

Nowhere in America’s laws does criminal punishment include violence, disease and (other than with capital offenses) even death. Yet for America’s prisoners, they are frequently a gratuitous part of the equation. COVID-19 merely compounds an already existing issue.

Second, the court system is fundamentally flawed. As a result, many innocent people go to prison — and guilty people are often there far too long. Wealthy defendants receive high-quality representation, while poor ones get overworked public defenders. Prosecutors enjoy broad discretion and immunity for bad acts. And juries — the linchpin of the entire system — are prone to bias and questionable convictions.

Finally, the prison system broadly and disproportionately harms impoverished communities and reinforces socioeconomic disparities. America imprisons well over 2 million people and has more people behind bars per capita than any other nation. Unsurprisingly, inmates are disproportionately from poor communities. It’s hard to fathom, but George Floyd, had he not been killed by the police during his arrest, quite possibly would be sitting in jail right now. Nothing compounds injustice and inequality like excessively locking up people from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

These systemic problems with our prisons — horrible conditions, flawed judicial proceedings, uneven socioeconomic impacts — interact with and compound each other. The whole is worse than the sum of the (already dismal) parts. And the net impact is staggering: vast numbers of vulnerable citizens are sent to prison on questionable grounds where they are punished disproportionately and kept apart from their aching communities.

When it comes to the U.S. prison system, the damage being done by COVID-19 is merely a symptom. The disease itself is much larger. We don’t just need the release of some nonviolent offenders. We need fundamental reform.

William Cooper is an attorney and columnist who has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and USA Today.