TTHE PRISONER at Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison in rural Illinois, they have to put up with a lot. The kitchens are infested with cockroaches. The roofs are collapsing. Many of the buildings are full of black mold. Showers and toilets often break, and pipes occasionally clog, pumping sewage onto floors. According to Lauren Stumblingbear, a 36-year-old former inmate who was released last July after serving nearly a decade for participating in an armed robbery, perhaps the craziest thing of all was the raccoons. The bugs lived in the prison housing unit, she says. “They would go down through holes in the ceiling.”
However, as of March 2020, even the raccoons seemed mild compared to what the inmates had to deal with. When covid-19 hit, they were confined to their cells. For the first two weeks they were unable to shower or make phone calls. They couldn’t use the commissary because it was run by prisoners who were no longer allowed to move and had to eat snacks brought to their cells. “We just sit there for months doing nothing,” says Ms. Stumblingbear. Covid leveled the prison anyway. Two years later, the last confinement has just been lifted.
Conditions in US prisons were dire even before the pandemic. Like Logan, many have been dilapidated, overcrowded, and understaffed for decades. A federal investigation of Alabama prisons in 2019 exposed rape, murder and drug trafficking. The guards not only could not prevent it, but were sometimes involved.
The pandemic has brought the system to the brink of collapse. “Inhumane conditions are prevalent in America’s prisons and jails at all levels of government, federal, state and local,” says Jon Ossoff, a Democratic senator from Georgia, who launched a task force on federal prison conditions. in February. Even as the virus recedes, chronic staffing shortages suggest conditions may not improve much.
According to data from the Department of Justice, in 2018 the number of deaths in state prisons reached the highest level since records began in 2001. Although diseases accounted for the vast majority, homicides and suicides also set records. Preliminary data for 2020 shows that deaths in state and federal prisons are up 46% from 2019, unsurprisingly given how quickly COVID has spread indoors. Violence may well have increased, too, but it’s hard to tell, because state corrections departments often don’t release information about it (local jails, which are usually reserved for suspects awaiting trial, are even worse). So the evidence is spotty. A single jail in St Louis had four riots last year, when inmates protested delays in their court hearings.
One positive aspect is that there are fewer people in prison. Data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank, showed that the total number of people in state and federal prisons fell by about 14% from January 2020 to December 2021, the lowest level in decades. However, that does not necessarily mean that the total number of people locked up has decreased that much, as many ended up serving their sentences in local jails, as prison authorities did not want to admit potentially infected people. And while some states promised to release people early to reduce the number, in reality all the reduction was due to admitting fewer people in the first place, says John Pfaff of Fordham University in New York.
Now that the virus is receding, prison numbers may rise again, Pfaff suggests, as jury trials resume. However, many prison officers chose to resign or retire as covid progressed. And as wages rise elsewhere, fewer are coming together to replace them. Last summer, nearly a third of federal prison positions were vacant.
In September, an anonymous guard at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a women’s facility in Georgia, told state officials that “on a good day” there might be as few as six or seven officers to protect 1,200 inmates. Hannah Riley of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an advocacy group, reckons 70% of jobs in the state are vacant. (The Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.) Georgia is now under investigation by federal authorities, such is the extent of the violence inside.
What does all this add up to? Even with the recent decline, the United States incarcerates more people than any other criminal justice system. Black and Hispanic people are especially likely to be incarcerated. In 2018, one in 45 black men was in prison (and even more in jails). Poor conditions are not just egregious violations of human rights. They also make prison less effective. A 2018 Justice Department study found that five out of six people released from state prisons were rearrested within nine years. The fact that prisoners are housed with limited access to education or mental health treatment, in a place where drug abuse and gangs are rife, is surely part of the reason.
Worsening conditions are likely to lead to more recidivism. Visiting restrictions mean many inmates have lost contact with family in the last two years, says Jobi Cates, founder of Restore Justice, an Illinois charity that pushes for criminal justice reform. The visits are “everything for our people,” he says, but prisons have been slow to bring them back. It is not just family members who have been kept out, but also teachers, therapists, and others who help prepare people for release.
Electronic means of keeping in touch also worsened due to staff shortages and concerns about moving people around. “They managed to get to where you can only get one phone call a day,” says NaJei Webster, who was released from a prison in Illinois in September and now works for Ms Cates’s charity. Prisoners can access email via tablets, but it costs money, not just for the machine but also for email sent. Sending money to prisoners to pay for these services carries exorbitant fees, charged by companies such as Global Tel Link and JPay, which saw their revenues rise in 2020.
The tragedy is that the drop in the prison population should be an opportunity to close down some of the worst institutions. And state budgets are unusually flush with cash. Ossoff says he found that improving prison conditions (as opposed to setting people free) has bipartisan support. With several Republicans, he is pushing for more Congressional oversight of prisons. But prison guard unions are loath to accept changes that would make their work harder, and thanks to staff shortages, they are more powerful than ever. It seems more likely that things will get worse. ■
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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Rotten Porridge”.