Imagine you were able to hop into a time machine, go back to mid-2019, and tell yourself that within a year the national discourse will be centered around whether prisoners should be released, police departments defunded, and prisons shut down. Chances are your past self wouldn’t believe it.
2020 has been a year like no other, with the spring we are living through coming to be defined by the twin crises of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the aftermath of George Floyd losing his life at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Both issues have converged on the issues of prisons and criminal justice reform.
Coronavirus And Prison Safety
Our nation’s prisons have been identified as facing a high risk of coronavirus outbreaks due to the proximity of inmates and prison staff.
Now there is a renewed push to release inmates who have been granted parole in order to limit their potential exposure to the coronavirus. In an example out of Texas, Juan Escobedo has had a parole request approved but must spend six more months behind bars as he completes a substance abuse recovery program. He “is watching with fear as coronavirus spreads like wildfire in prisons across Texas and the country, wondering every day if his punishment will become a death sentence.”
According to USA Today, his situation is not uncommon and “inmates advocates are pushing officials for their release, saying they can complete life skills, recovery, or other programs online or in the community.”
Protests Lead To Talk Of Prison Abolition And Defunding The Police
While we continue grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, our nation’s streets have been filled with marchers, demonstrating in the wake of Floyd’s killing last month. Along with the demonstrations, conversations have turned in the direction of how to reform our nation’s police departments and criminal justice system.
One idea that is graining traction is the abolition of prisons. The United State’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, “to the point where the country constitutes about five percent of the world’s population and yet houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners”.
Abolitionists argue that our current system cannot be fixed by reform; it is too far gone and based on false premises. Instead, leaders of the abolition movement say that “society must invest in communities and address harm in other ways”.
Other activists – while not going as far as calling for the abolition of prisons – have called for the defunding of police departments and making significant structural changes. Proponents say that taking issues such as mental health off the plate of police departments would benefit citizens and the police. According to a report by The Cut, “law enforcement spends 21 percent of its time responding to and transporting people with mental illnesses.”
In a time of great uncertainty, one thing seems certain: change is coming.