For decades people who are currently or formerly incarcerated have led the fight to end mass criminalization, incarceration, and state surveillance in the United States. All along, they have been shining a spotlight on the harmful, dehumanizing, and unsanitary conditions of confinement in jails, prisons, and detention centers. At the same time, they have rightly questioned why we as a society continue to use punitive responses to issues that are largely social, political, or economic in nature.
These grassroots efforts have grown into powerful social justice movements and political platforms, including national calls to end money bail and to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Those of us in the field of public health have noted, used, and contributed to growing public health research that affirms what frontline communities have said all along:
- Incarceration measurably harms one’s mental and physical health.
- Incarceration negatively impacts one’s family and community health.
- The criminal legal system disproportionately harms people who are structurally marginalized, including Black people, Latinx people, Native American people, immigrants, people with disabilities, queer and transgender people, and people who are low income.
The fact that incarceration is harmful to the health of everyone in jails, prisons, or detention centers did not begin nor will it end with the novel coronavirus.
This includes people who are currently incarcerated, people who were formerly incarcerated, their loved ones, and the people who work in these facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic adds a concentrated urgency to this reality and foregrounds important truths.
This pandemic reminds us that we are all only as safe and healthy as the most vulnerable and under-resourced among us.
This pandemic reminds us that overcrowded spaces — such as jails, prisons, and detention centers — are precarious, at best, environments for our health.
This pandemic reminds us that we have failed to create a functional social safety net — including health care, housing, and paid leave.
These are important reminders that demand action, in order to keep us safe from COVID-19 and to build the healthy communities we seek beyond this pandemic. We believe our actions must also center people who face incarceration.
Thus, we continue to support movement leaders’ demands that were first uttered long before the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. We must stop incarcerating people.
This includes but is not limited to ending Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, ending sweeps of unhoused people, ending crimeless revocations, and ending money bail and pretrial incarceration in favor of the presumption of release. We support decriminalization efforts, including for sex work.
2. We must decarcerate our jails, prisons, and detention centers.
We expect releases to happen in waves, and they must start with those who are most directly vulnerable to health harms — including older adults, pregnant people, and people with disabilities and chronic illness — as well as those who are primary caregivers for loved ones.
3. We must meet the immediate needs of people who are incarcerated.
While we actively decarcerate, we must ensure that those who are still inside get their health needs met and are able to stay fully connected to their social support network. This includes but is not limited to ensuring proper access to hygiene materials and eliminating fees for phone calls and copays for medical visits.
4. We must invest in the assets that make our communities healthy.
As we divest from jails, prisons, detention centers, and policing, we must invest in health-affirming resources, such as robust health care, affordable housing, living wages, quality schools, environmental justice, and adequate transportation.
Now is not the time for political fights. It is the time for action.
Human Impact Partners (HIP) is a national public health non-profit organization bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society. The Health Instead of Punishment Program at HIP fights for a society where all people are healthy and free.
🙌 If you’re interested in us sending a version of this statement as a letter to your state or local officials — like this one to Alameda County, California officials — contact Amber Akemi Piatt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. There are many resources being shared on how coronavirus impacts people. We support and uplift partner organizations’ related demands:
- No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, by Peter Wagner and Emily Widra with the Prison Policy Initiative
- #ReleaseThemAll: Organizational Sign on Letter — Response to Coronavirus for People Detained, by the Detention Watch Network
- COVID-19 Response Guidance for Community Bail & Bond Funds, by the National Bail Fund Network