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The jail on New York’s Rikers Island has a coronavirus infection rate that’s seven times higher than in the surrounding city. Three inmates in a federal prison in Louisiana have died from Covid-19, with many prisoners and staff members testing positive for it. More than 100 individuals incarcerated in the crowded Cook County jail have Covid-19. The first case appeared in a jail in Harris County, Texas. And we’re just getting started.

One solution is decarceration — releasing inmates deemed to be at low risk for reoffending as a way to reduce the density inside prisons.

Decarceration isn’t just humane for individuals who are incarcerated, whose access to sanitation and competent care is limited. It is essential to flattening the curve for everyone.


That’s why public health experts, reform advocates, and even MSNBC host Rachel Maddow have pled with everyone from judges, governors, law enforcement, and President Trump to spring people. Their entreaties have met with some success — eight states reacted quickly to the requests and immediately liberated large numbers of people deemed “low risk.” Others, like the state of Connecticut, have refused. Other jurisdictions remain undecided about decarceration or, like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inconsistent.

Making the case for release hasn’t worked uniformly because advocates have presented the issue to the wrong people. We need to bring this urgent public health problem to a doctor, ideally a public health practitioner. Fortunately, one such individuals is directly empowered to release people from custody, in every jurisdiction.


Federal statute 42 U.S.C 264, which is part of the Public Welfare Code, authorizes the U.S. surgeon general to release, on a conditional basis, anyone in custody as long as the release has the “purpose of preventing the introduction, transmission or spread of such communicable diseases.”

No one’s ever invoked the statute for this purpose, but this is the first time in more than a century we’re experiencing a pandemic and an incarceration crisis at the same time. We don’t know how many people were in prison when the Spanish flu hit in 1918, but in 1925 it was about 91,000. Today, about 2.2 million people are incarcerated.

This system, which has grown by more than 24-fold in 95 years, isn’t a monolith. It’s a network of 4,000 separate fiefdoms in the United States, where governors or sheriffs or wardens have control over policy. The localization of criminal justice means that responses to Covid-19 won’t be equivalent. And that means they won’t be fair, not only to individual inmates but to local communities.

Decarceration is not some strategic manipulation to circumvent the courts or clemency systems and spring people who might not otherwise have a chance; it’s an essential public health strategy.

A team of epidemiologists published a study in January that showed a significant correlation between incarceration rates and mortality rates at the county level. When the pandemic struck, the study authors re-analyzed their data to focus on infectious disease and found that the infectious disease mortality rate (excluding HIV) increased 4% when counties increased their incarceration rates. The threat posed in and by correctional facilities is real.

It’s obvious that maintaining legal sentences and keeping prisons and jails at their current capacities will likely push more people into the path of the coronavirus. Yet the people in charge of these legal systems resist a simple solution to that problem.

This slow and uninformed response by government leaders should have been expected. Common sense calls for decarceration don’t seem to work on people who aren’t medical professionals, namely police, prosecutors, and judges. Incarceration is a public health issue, yet we’ve allowed people with no medical or health expertise to steer criminal justice for decades. Criminal law and best practices in public health are often incompatible with each other, as has been said about the war on drugs and the opioid epidemic.

Now that we’re in a new health crisis we’re doing it again: going to the lawmen to solve a medical problem.

The arguments against uncaging people — recidivism and a loss of punitive authority — are weak. It’s unlikely that released inmates will pose the same danger to public wellness as the coronavirus. Decarcerated individuals would have to kill more than 2,000 people a month to be as lethal as this virus.

And take note: The releases thus far haven’t resulted in a crime wave. Actually, crime has gone down during the pandemic, mostly because people are home and not out.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has the authority to release people from prisons and jails. That’s undisputed. Whether he will exercise that authority when asked to do so is the question.

Adams has a unique perspective on incarceration: He’s one of 113 million adults in this country who have an immediate family member who is or was incarcerated. His brother, Phillip, was incarcerated as recently as early 2017 in Maryland on a burglary charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing about $250. Adams has said that his brother’s saga is “the story of America” and an attempt to “punish a chronic disease” — addiction.

If Adams says it’s sound medical practice not to release people, then we should follow that advice. At least it will be a medical practitioner making health-related decisions.

Chandra Bozelko is a nationally syndicated columnist and runs Prison Diaries, an award-winning blog. She was incarcerated for more than six years in Connecticut.

  • the one item no ever ever asks about in release of any of these prisoners is why they should not be tested before release ; or when they will be released this highly contagious disease will spread throughout the community

  • && let’s not forget to mention when he gets out in JULY, hes getting out with no probation, no nothing. Walking away free. So there are different circumstances for diff people, they put him in for the halfway house. Actually 7 diff ones, trying to get him out, but they say they are like the lottery, and only certain people are getting picked. It just disgusts me when people literally put everyone in the same category, just because someone is there dont mean they deserve it. If he did, I’m sure his d.a wouldnt have recommended twice to let him out, no probation, and time served. The judge a 92 year old woman, has never liked him, she dont take new cases just old ones and resentence. She said she was surprised and hardly ever hear the d.a. side with the defendant but she didnt care. Do I agree to let murderers, rapest, chomos out? No. But for someone that did there time, and literally walking out the door in a matter of under 90 days with no probation or nothing anyway, and hasn’t had a legit criminal charge in 17 years, yeah I dont agree with that, keep him and chance him never coming home, to keep him not even 90 days, and he wont have a probation officer or nothing anymore. Dont make sense.

  • Wow. Everyone commenting are straight hypocrites. And apparently you all have always done the right thing right? You all are saints? Stop it while your ahead, god dont like ugly, and yall people are being straight DISGUSTING, actually my husband is in Federal Prison, hell be 35 this year, hasn’t had a charge in 17 years since he was 18, he went to federal because he was a felon from that ONE mess up when he was 18, and they found bullets and he did 5 years, got out last year did 6 months on a violation of probation, this year again just violated probation. His D.A RECOMMENDED BOTH times we went to court for time served, no probation, let him out. And the judge didn’t want to, said hs guidelines was 6 to 14 months, so gave him 14 months.. for not seeing his p.o. because we was having our son and he didnt want to miss the birth, then we went back to court because hes been in the HOLE the entire time for NO reason, and she dropped it to 9 months, his outdate is July. He has asthma, and they are all on complete lockdown, it’s one thing if you deserve it. But I’m sure for his one mess up from 17 years ago, shouldn’t cost him his life. Were you all perfect when you was 17-18? Didnt think so, so dont speak on things you have no idea about. Thank you.

  • Do the victims of what the prisoners are inprisoned for get a say at all? A warning about the release? Extra protection to prevent being victimized again? No? Then don’t release, but expand the jails with isolation wings. Any in there for personal MJ use (no danger to others) should be released: it should be legal soon.

  • Having an imprisoned family member who would not reoffend and is not a threat this makes sense to me. I know there must be more like him in the system. Let the prison people decide who is eligible.

  • Who decides “low risk???” Are you kidding? I think that’s the stupidest idea yet. You obviously don’t have a close friend or family member impacted by criminals. List YOUR idea of people that should be let out. Burglary OK with you? Burglars coming to see me get 00 buckshot. They’re better off in da priz. And tell me another lie like the ONLY time you got caught and sent (where you belonged) was the first time you were a criminal? Just plain dumb idea.

  • Nope! Nobody is there because they’re NOT suppose to be. They’re ALL there for good reason. This is just an excuse to fulfill a particular political party’s want list. They’ve been saying it for yrs!

  • I am sorry, but this move to rename something into a clinical sounding term”decarceration”, will not work.
    I am not at all interested in what a doctor who has zip zero knowledge of the likelihood for reoffense says is a low risk felon. In fact, by profession they are probably far more likely to be bleeding heart liberals, not the law and order orientated people you want making such decisions.

    I am only interested in what professionals highly trained in the criminal justice system can tell us about likely rates of recidivism. If they are determined to be low, than sure possibly release them with electronic bracelets tied to their ankles, so that they continue in some measure to be “confined” and not given the freedom of people not convicted of felonies. This crisis can’t be seen as a get out of jail card. We have already seen in some cities like Chicago Where bleeding hearts released some prisoners and , as you could easily predict sone committed new crimes. In fact the idiots that did this never even notified the police nor the victims of these criminals rthat the offender was released. Speaking as someone with a strong academic interest in the control of domestic violence And familiar with many cases of victim intimidation and retaliation this could have been easily predicted

    What doctors can and should be doing is helping make the prisons safer. Perhaps they should advocate for not allowing family members or lawyers to visit in person, only by “zoom” meeting or other electronic means….But putting untrained, uneducated (In criminology or criminal justice) doctors in charge of prisoner releases is a horrible idea.

  • The “Decarceration for C19” argument would have more credibility were it not coming from the same folks who are argue for “Decarceration for Racism” and “Decarceration because of economics” and “Decarceration for Justice” and “Decarceration for [YOUR NAME HERE] all while of course disparaging “police, prosecutors, and judges.” How unusual! C19 should be a factor as the commentator below notes with credibility because ALAN notes the other factors for consideration.

  • Sorry, but these folks are there for a reason, and stories about a ten year conviction for stealing $250 do not add up. TELL US THE REST OF THE STORY. Priors? And while addiction may be considered a disease, becoming addicted by using drugs in the first place is a CHOICE.

    Simple cure for addiction. make dealing drugs a capital offense. Dealers kill people and ruin lives and families every day of the year. It is high time we treat them as the scourge to society that they are. Make it a capital offense with very limited appeals. Get caught dealing. Death sentence. Once a few care carried out and it is shown the we have the RESOLVE necessary to stop Dealers, the supply of drugs will start to dry up.

    Back to topic…..I would agree with releasing those who are in the last 10% of their sentence. Beyond that….They are there for a reason.

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