By Clara Hendrix
As the devastating effects of COVID-19 continue to ravage the country, there have been endless calls from public health experts to reduce the number of people incarcerated in prisons. States have started to reduce prison populations to protect the lives of incarcerated individuals, but their efforts have been minimal. It is important to take advantage of this unique moment for the future of our prison system and work to permanently reduce prison populations.
Prisons are extremely high-risk environments for contracting COVID-19 due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. During the initial COVID-19 outbreak, Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) in Marion, Ohio had the highest rates of COVID-19 compared to all other prisons in the US. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the criminal justice issues, reported as of December, Ohio prisons had 7,795 cases and 115 deaths.
State prisons have been expected to decrease their populations as much as possible by releasing nonviolent offenders and those whose sentences are almost complete, but most states have made little to no impact on reducing prison populations. In September, Governor DeWine explained that Ohio prison populations have significantly decreased since March, but reports on Ohio show that only 129 inmates have been released early in response to COVID-19.
The Marshall Project explains the apparent decrease in prison populations across the U.S. as a result of court closures, fewer people being sentenced and fewer parole violations resulting in a prison sentence, and prisons not accepting new inmates from county jails. States need to do a better job releasing individuals early to protect vulnerable prisoners and stop the spread of COVID-19. As individuals are released, it is crucial that these citizens are receiving financial support necessary to stay out of prison in the future.
American Progress is a liberal public policy institute that has looked into the crucial need for reentry reforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sara Figgatt, an expert in poverty policy, explains that the calls to release inmates are not met with increased funding. Reentry service providers have requested that Congress allocates funding to ensure that returning citizens are able to access the resources they need to transition back into society, such as connections to transportation, support services, and housing.
The individuals who have been released face additional challenges due to the economic impact COVID-19 has had for finding a job and stable housing. It is crucial that individuals released from prison in response to COVID-19 have access to cash assistance but there have been many obstacles to receiving COVID-19 relief checks, on top of what is already a difficult to impossible transition.
The CARES Act, originally passed in March, included incarcerated individuals among the populations eligible to collect stimulus checks which would also include those individuals released in response to the outbreak. In May, following an evaluation from the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the IRS updated their response to say that those who are incarcerated are no longer eligible to receive stimulus checks, at which point they stopped sending money and started asking those who had already received their check to return the money.
The Northern District of California Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton granted a permanent injunction against the U.S. Department of Treasury, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and the United States of America to stop withholding CARES Act stimulus funds from individuals that are incarcerated. The result of this injunction means that the IRS can no longer deny stimulus relief to people based on incarceration and they must re-issue payments that they previously retracted.
Due to the limited options of employment during COVID-19, these checks serve as a critical sources of financial aid for most American citizens during this unprecedented time. Without access to stimulus checks, the individuals released from prison risk unsuccessful reentry as they look to alternative avenues for income, often through criminal activity, to afford housing and other expenses.
A 2014 study on reentry programs in Washington State, found that the ability for reentering citizens to have stable housing impacted their chance of finding employment, establishing a social network and complying with community supervision. They also found that periods of homelessness significantly increase the chance that an individual will be involved in more crime and end up back in prison. In 2015, a study in the Journal of Crime and Delinquency found that individuals released from prison without stable housing are more likely to return to prison.
A study in the International Journal of Social Science and Public Policy in 2020 found that each residential transitions increased the likelihood of an individual returning to prison by 12% and for individuals that were homeless after being released from prison, increased the likelihood by nearly 50%. While some people may not support cash assistance for previously incarcerated individuals, research shows that having stable housing, and thus the financial capability to maintain housing, is crucial to the process of reentry and the overall goal of staying out of prison.
For future COVID-19 relief packages, it is crucial that incarcerated individuals are able to receive COVID-19 relief funds. Sara Figgatt, at American Progress, explains that Congress must include individuals being released from prison in future COVID-19 relief packages so they have access to direct cash assistance. This would allow for these individuals to receive the same assistance as every other American citizen suffering from both the indirect and direct effects of COVID-19.
Ensuring that previously incarcerated people are able to receive relief funds would provide them with the financial capability to return to society and most importantly, find stable housing to stay out of prison. To take advantage of this unique moment in history for our criminal justice system, we must ensure the calls to release individuals in state prisons are met, and returning citizens are given the best opportunity to succeed. If the individuals being released from prisons across the U.S. are able to successfully reenter, this could be the first major attempt at permanently shrinking prison populations.
Editor’s note: Clara Hendrix is currently a master’s student studying Sociology at Ohio University. She is passionate about criminal justice reform.