Tag Archives: prison

COVID-19 and prisons in the US — a recipe for disaster

Without measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, the disease could wreak havoc — especially in the US.

Image credits: Emiliano Bar.

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world: 75 out of every 10,000 people (or 0.7% out of the entire population) are incarcerated. The US, which accounts for around 4% of the world’s population, houses 22% of the world’s prisoners. In total, over 2.3 million people are behind bars, with the number increasing 500% in the last 40 years, despite crime steadily dropping at the national level.

That means that 2.3 million people are at a very high risk of COVID-19 infection.

Prisons and disease

It wouldn’t be the first time a pandemic devastates prisons, write three researchers in a viewpoint for the medical journal JAMA. In 1918, for instance, the Spanish Flu brought chaos to all the prisons it penetrated. An account from San Quentin prison detailing the Spanish influenza of 1918 estimated that half of the 1900 inmates contracted the disease during the first wave of the epidemic. Sick calls increased from 150 to 700 daily and contrary to protocol, most of the ill were kept in the general prison population because the hospital ward was full.

To make matters even worse, the population in prisons is increasingly gentrified. As a result of longer sentences (mostly for non-violent offenses), the average age of the prison population has increased substantially. In 2013, state prisons housed 131,500 people over 55 years, a 400% increase since 1993. Many incarcerated persons older than 55 years have chronic conditions, such as heart and lung diseases, putting them in the highest risk categories for COVID-19.

In addition to being crowded, few US prisons have health systems capable of accommodating a surge in sick calls. If something similar to the Spanish influenza situation at the San Quentin prison were to happen, there would be little support to be offered to prisoners. Although the US Constitution guarantees a right to healthcare for those who are incarcerated, in practice, this is unlikely to be ensured should COVID-19 cases in prisons start to increase. Incarcerated persons may even be charged co-payments that are very high relative to the little revenue they generate, which will deter many from seeking care.

Meanwhile, prisons are supporting the US coronavirus effort through prisoner work.

Working through a pandemic

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on March 9 that the state prison system’s industrial arm, Corcraft, would help produce hand sanitizer. Other states quickly followed. Incarcerated populations were put to work washing potentially contaminated hospital laundrymanufacturing protective equipmentdisinfecting cleaning supplies; and digging mass graves. Nearly every US state has some sort of program where incarcerated populations are contributing labor to the pandemic response, and the pay is almost negligible.

The pay for such work is, on average, between US$0.14 and $0.63 an hour, and some states (such as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas) don’t pay wages at all for this work. This is partially addressed in some states, for instance in New York, where gravediggers are paid $6 an hour.

But the way the work itself is being carried does not seem to respect social distancing measures. The Arkansas Department of Corrections recently posted an image of incarcerated workers making masks while sitting next to one another, which has been taken down now. A video posted on April 7 showed incarcerated women in Arizona making masks, without wearing any gloves and sitting inches apart from each other.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, prison manufacturing ramped up, with incarcerated people working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to produce masks, antibacterial soap, medical gowns, and disinfectant (although the standard workday for incarcerated workers is 6 hours a day).

Exposure and risk

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, clinicians and advocates called for better health conditions in prisons. When it became clear that COVID-19 would become a pandemic, many looked at prisons as extremely vulnerable places and proposed precautionary measures, such as making protective equipment widely available, eliminating the medical co-payments and other disincentives, and providing appropriate medical care for incarcerated people.

Few of these things happened.

In Missouri, incarcerated workers are continuing to wash and handle hospital laundry, raising the risk of bringing outside infection to prisons, and this is hardly an isolated arrangement. Prisons provide important labor at low costs, but the occupational hazards that go along with this are generally ignored, as is the CDC guidance on managing coronavirus in detention facilities. If COVID-19 enters prisons, it will spread like wildfire — and we are already seeing this starting to happen.

However, the Harvard researchers writing the JAMA viewpoint say that no matter how you go about it, the bottom line is that prisons are just too crowded to be safe in the face of a disease such as COVID-19.

“[T]he most effective way to avoid an imminent outbreak, is, as others have argued, to drastically reduce the populations of jails and prisons. Criminal justice systems can accomplish this by reducing unnecessary jail admissions and expediting prison release. Some prosecutors are already adjusting prosecutorial standards to reduce jail admissions and the length of stays.”

Some steps have been taken to reduce crowding in some jails (for instance, the prosecution of drug possession and other minor crimes is being deterred in some cities), but overall, most prisons and jails remain unaffected.

Every day, the number of incarcerated persons and prison workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 grows, with few clear solutions in sight.

Statue tied.

Prison doesn’t work, according to a new study

A team of U.S. researchers says incarcerating those who commit serious crimes doesn’t stop them from doing so again after release.

Statue tied.

Image via Pixabay.

When we were little, we could get sent to our rooms or put on a time-out for more serious misbehaving. I find a certain humorous irony that, as adults, we tend to apply the same ‘fix’ to those guilty of committing serious crimes. I understand the reasoning behind this line of thinking, but the parallel is, nevertheless, funny to me.

However, just like getting sent to your room didn’t really guarantee you wouldn’t misbehave later on, prison doesn’t deter inmates from committing more crimes after they’re released, a new paper reports.

Doin’ my time

“The unadjusted probabilities of both arrest and conviction for a violent crime were higher among those sentenced to prison compared with probation,” the paper reads.

“It is unclear whether these unadjusted outcomes reflect causal effects of imprisonment itself or systematic unobserved differences between those sentenced to prison versus probation in underlying propensity to engage in violence, thus motivating our use of the natural experiment based on [a random assignment of judges to criminal cases].”

The team, which included researchers from the University of California, the University of Michigan, Kaiser Permanente Colorado Institute for Health Research, the State University of New York, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, used statistical methods to analyze the behavior of Michigan inmates. The study focused on those incarcerated for committing violent crimes, looking at their behavior in prison and after being released.

What the team wanted to see is how likely inmates were to re-engage in criminal behavior after their release from prison. The study drew on data from over 110,000 people who were convicted of violence-related felonies between 2003 and 2006 in Michigan. Some of them were sentenced to time in prison, while others were given probation. The team then followed the progress of each of these individuals through to the year 2015, looking for arrests, incarcerations, and other brushes with the wrong side of the law.

Initially, the team reports, incarceration does seem to work: they found a slight decrease in crime rates for those sent to prison compared to those who were put on probation. However, the obvious needs pointing out here — it’s much harder to commit crime in prison even if you desperately wanted to. This was also highlighted by what they did after serving their time. After release, past inmates were just as likely as those placed on probation to engage in criminal activity. In other words, prison doesn’t turn criminals to the one true path. Who would have thought?

“People sentenced to prison were more likely to be subject to secondary [incarceration], meaning that they were at greater risk than people sentenced to probation of being sent to prison later due to technical violations of parole or probation,” the paper adds.

“We found that being sentenced to prison increased the probability of future imprisonment within 5 years by almost 20 percentage points among people with a nonviolent offence.”

Incarceration is probably one of the oldest forms of punishment we humans have ever implemented, and in certain respects, it’s certainly effective. If your goal is to stop (or at least severely impede) somebody from committing more crime, locking them up under guard is definitely going to do the trick.

But, we also tend to run this social narrative that prison is meant to teach people a lesson, and I have a problem with that. The thinking, I assume, goes that all that time spent behind bars will give inmates a chance to think about what they did, and why they shouldn’t do so again after being released. In my eyes, that line has a big, gaping, glaring flaw — the inmates know what they did; they were there. They’re not 5, unable to grasp the consequences of their actions so no amount of time-out will help.

I like to think that people naturally want to fit into the group (society) and follow its rules, because that’s the kind of hairless ape we are. I don’t think criminals are ‘born bad’ or that crime wells out of a desire to do evil; personally, I think it’s mostly a product of our environment and the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Sure, some people will resort to crime to get ahead, but those are rarely violent crimes — money laundering, fraud, environmental crime, tax evasion are much more profitable and clean. But, I think that average people resort to crime when they aren’t able, allowed, or taught how to operate within the boundaries that society deems as ‘right‘ and/or ‘legal’. Living in an Eastern European country struggling with illiberalism and government corruption has helped shape that idea in my head, and some studies do support my view.

But whether you think that prison is moralizing or not is not what this study aimed to find out. The team wanted to see if prison is effective and the data seems to indicate that it is not — at least, not any more effective than probation. The authors themselves note that imprisonment just isn’t an effective deterrent to crime and that prison is a lot more expensive than probation. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we take a look at whether prisons should be around any longer? It’s not cheap to hold an inmate in captivity, and according to these findings, it doesn’t benefit either the prisoners themselves or society at large.

Even worse, prisons are a very unsavory environment, and they actually breed and harden criminals. Wouldn’t our money be better spent on something that benefits at least one, if not both, of the parties involved? Norway and the Netherlands, for example, have enjoyed such success with rehabilitation programs that they’re actually closing down traditional jails for lack of criminals. Maybe we should try to emulate them more.

The paper “A natural experiment study of the effects of imprisonment on violence in the community” has been published in the journal Nature.

The Netherlands is shutting down prisons. It doesn’t have enough criminals, and prisons aren’t effective at rehabilitation

Eight prisons were marked for closure in 2009. Nineteen more followed in 2014, and another eight closures were announced in 2016. While this is a problem for the country’s 1,900 prison workers losing their jobs… it’s not such a bad problem to have.

A corridor of the end of the world prison at Ushuaia, now a museum. Image credits: Luis Argerich

The main reason why this happens is simple: crime is going down. Rates are falling around 0.9% per year. This means that by 2021, 3,000 prison cells and 300 youth detention places will be an unneeded surplus. This is a healthy drop, and former justice minister Ard van der Steur said that serious crimes are significantly dropping as well. Aside from indicating less crime taking place across the country, this also saves a lot of money — as prisons are very expensive to maintain.

But this doesn’t really tell the entire story. Somewhere along the line, the Dutch understood that prisons are not particularly good at rehabilitating people. Just like in Norway, the Netherlands focuses on rehabilitating people instead of punishing them — and this works. The Norway recidivism rates are at 20%. Compare that to the 76.6% recidivism rate in the US, and you’ll start to see why this is a good thing. Judges in the Netherlands tend to give community service instead of jail for many crimes. The Duch are closing prisons so fast, they’re actually importing prisoners from Norway — which gains them extra money. They also don’t have a war on drugs, which helps contribute to their success.

Still, many believe punishments aren’t strong enough, as many people who commit light crimes (and even some who commit heavy crimes) never really get a jail sentence. Socialist Party MP Nine Kooiman criticized the government:

‘If this cabinet was really working to catch crooks, we wouldn’t have this problem of empty cells,’ she said.

Yet it’s hard to argue with those figures. So at this point, I guess it’s important (especially for the US, which has a record high incarceration rate) to ask one question: when people commit crimes, do we want to punish them, or do we want to rehabilitate them? Ideally, you’d say both — but this doesn’t seem possible.


Netherlands is closing down more prisons because there’s no one to fill them with

The Netherlands’ accent on rehabilitation and social re-integration of criminals seems to have finally paid off. The country no longer considers its prisons as economically viable and plans to close down another five such institutions.

Image via pixabay

The Netherlands have seen a steady drop in crime rate over the past 12 years, a product of several factors: relaxed drug laws, an accent on rehabilitation over punishment in the penal system and wide-spread use of ankle monitoring systems allowing convicted criminals to re-enter the work force. Shorter sentences issued by judges also means that people spent less time in jail on average, and more serious crimes are becoming less common. This has lead to an unlikely problem: the Dutch have been going through somewhat of a inmate shortage these past years.

So in 2013, 19 jails were closed because there weren’t enough prisoners to fill them. Last September, the country had to import 240 inmates from Norway just to keep their facilities full. Addressing Parliament, Justice Minister Ard van der Steur recently said that it no longer made economical sense for the country to maintain its prisons operational. Authorities are now planning to disband five more prisons by the end of summer, The Telegraph reports.

Closing down the jails will mean the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs, only 700 of which can transition into other roles in Dutch law enforcement. But the benefits would outweigh the cost: if the current downward trend in crime continues (with the present average of 0.9% per year,) and there isn’t anything to suggest it won’t, then an estimated 3,000 prison cells and 300 youth detention places will become superfluous in five years’ time.

There’s an incredibly low incarceration rate in the Netherlands: only 11,600 inmates out of the total population of 17 million adding up to 69 incarcerations per 100,000 people. To put that into perspective, the highest incarceration rate in the world, reported in the U.S., clocks in at 716 per 100,000 — a testament to the lack of services and rehabilitation programs aimed at former inmates. Without a safety net to give them any other options, many turn back to crime as a means for survival.


Prisons are schools for criminals. Illegal earnings go up after jail time

As of 2008, just about one in 100 people in the US is currently living in jail. This amounts to millions and millions of people currently incarcerated or roughly half of the total number of jailed people in the world. As to what are the social and legal causes that have lead to such an incredible proportion of incarcerated individuals, is maybe for another time to ask and answer. What I’d like to discuss today is how effective is the correctional system, in the US at least.

prison-timeIt’s typically believed that jail time hardens criminals, making them even more deterred in joining society. Gangs, drugs, even the crushing psychological consequences that come with incarceration certainly all have their part to play. Donald T. Hutcherson II, a sociology professor at Ohio University in Lancaster, however decided to tackle the question – whether the correctional system reforms or, on the contrary, hardens criminals – by turning to a source that doesn’t lye – numbers.

Thus, the professor mined  data from the vast repository in the U.S. government’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. If you haven’t heard about it before, this is a veritable behemoth set of surveys in which broad segments of the population were interviewed, the first segment being from 1968. During these interviews, which are repeated each year (very important), detailed and confidential information is gathered about each individual, including illegally derived income.

Since the survey also notes whether an individual spent time in prison or not, this proved to be an ideal data mine for Hutcherson. After going through tens of thousands of queries and applying countless filters, he eventually managed to establish whether illegal earnings went up or down after individuals served time.

“Spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings,” Hutcherson says. “On average, a person can make roughly $11,000 more [illegally] from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison.”

Hutcherson envisions the process, for young people sentenced to jail at least, akin to a criminal mentorship.

“You come in [to prison]. You’re 16, 17, 18 years old. You’re looking around and you’re thinking, ‘Listen, I can learn from these seasoned veterans.’ And that’s exactly what you do. … Basically, you are spending a lot of time around other criminals, seasoned veterans who know the lay of the land, and they can teach you the mechanisms — ways to get away with crime.”

[RELATED] Crime and punishment through the ages

Hutcherson is quick to note that these statistics refer to general youth that is currently or has gone through incarceration, and by no means do the findings stick for absolutely every individual. Certainly there must criminals who have left prison reformed, still in broader numbers the conclusions are rather gloom.

“You would think that being punished, serving time in prison, for young people would be a deterrent,” Hutcherson says. “But look at it this way. When you leave prison, who are you going to hang out with? You’re not going to all of a sudden join the chess club.”

Findings were published in The Prison Journal.


Justice served cold before lunch time: hungry judges less likely to grant parole

Law is a highly demanding field, in which its practitioners are required to have an objective and stoic approach at all times, but a recently published very interesting study shows that court judges can be just as biased as any of us and their rulings, however rational we’d love them to be, are influenced by moods and swings, and … lunch breaks.

Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev studied 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period, to see weather there’s a correlation between the proportion of favorable/negative parole hearings and the order in which they’re presented to the judge during the day. The results of the study can be observed in the graph below which features on the vertical axis the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole, while on the horizontal axis the order in which the cases were heard during the day is shown  – the dotted lines represents the moments of the day in which the judges went for their snack breaks.

If some of you might have been amused at the beginning of the article, then there’s a good chance you’re pretty amazed right now, maybe even scared. Yes, in the beginning of the day the chance a prizoner has of a parole being granted is around 65%, only to plummet to nearly 0% towards mid-day!

The rulings researched in the study were made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges, each with an average of 22 years of judging behind them. Their verdicts represented 40% of all parole requests in the country during the ten months. Every day, each judge considers between 14 and 35 cases, spending around 6 minutes on each decision. They take two food breaks that divide their day into three sessions. All of these details, from the decision to the times of the breaks, are duly recorded.

Jonathan Levav, who led the study, says, “There are no checks about the judges’ decisions because no one has ever documented this tendency before.  Needless to say, I would expect there to be something put into place after this.”

Denzeger’s explination is a simple one: repetitive action leads to intense mental resources depletion and fatigue, which leads to something called “choice overload”. When this happens, basically, we generally tend to choose the default option, in this case the default option is “deny parole”.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, says, “To me, this study underscores that decision-making is complex and does not occur in a theoretical or formalistic vacuum.” She says that similar studies have found that people from medical residents to air force pilots make more errors when they go for long periods without rest.

“Such studies have helped inform policy changes designed to minimize human errors that arise from lack of sleep, and mental and physical exhaustion,” Farahany says. “That legal decision-makers might also be impacted by mental or physical exhaustion should be unsurprising. Improvements in medicine, military combat, and other critical decision-making contexts have required that attention be paid to the effects of exhaustion. Likewise, improvements in the justice system may likewise require that society acknowledge the effects of biological contributions to legal decision-making.”

Study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.