William Cooper: Pandemic is an opportunity to rethink prisons

FILE - In this Friday, July 13, 2018 file photo, inmates pass the time within their cell block at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho. In March 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus and its lingering threat has become a potential “get out of jail card” for inmates who argue it’s not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars. (Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP)

Gov. Gary Herbert must rapidly release low-level and nonviolent prisoners given an inmate’s COVID-19 infection at Salt Lake County Jail. The coronavirus runs rampant in the close quarters of a prison.

Releasing prisoners now, however, won’t just reduce the spread of the virus. It will also (incidentally) reduce the number of inmates who shouldn’t be imprisoned in the first place.

The coronavirus has forced us to rethink the basic structure of our society in numerous ways, primarily regarding our health system and economy. But the US prison system – so often overlooked and forgotten – deserves increased scrutiny too. It has numerous fundamental problems.

First, as the coronavirus highlights, the conditions in U.S. prisons can be abhorrent. Nelson Mandela once said that “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Under this standard, the U.S. should be condemned. Our prisons are often overcrowded, under-resourced and, lacking in concerned public scrutiny, without proper oversight.

Just last year, for example, the Justice Department issued a scathing 56-page report detailing horrific conditions in Alabama’s prisons. “The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report explained. There was, the report 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. Indeed, many prisoners will get COVID-19 and some will suffer severe symptoms and die.

Second, the court system is riddled with deficiencies. As a result, many innocent people go to prison – and guilty people are often there far too long. Wealthy defendants get quality representation while poor ones get overburdened 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. Nothing keeps a downtrodden community behind like excessively locking up its members.

These systemic problems with our prisons — terrible conditions, unfair judicial proceedings, uneven socioeconomic harms — 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 broader. We don’t just need the release of some nonviolent offenders. We need fundamental reform.

William Cooper

William Cooper is an attorney who has practiced law in Utah and written for The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, Huffington Post and USA Today, among others.