Originally published in the Washington Examiner
by Jessica Jackson and David Safavian
Michael Tyson, a 53-year-old, had been jailed for a month at Rikers Island in New York when he became ill with a fever. A few days ago, he became the first Rikers prisoner to die from COVID-19.
The crime that ultimately earned Tyson a death sentence? Committing a technical violation of his parole.
Under normal circumstances, prisons and jails are some of the worst places on earth to be. But now, as the world deals with an unprecedented global pandemic that has already killed tens of thousands, they’re even more dangerous.
Unsanitary conditions, extremely close quarters, and lack of sufficient medical care are a few hallmarks of your average correctional facility. Some are in better shape than others, and some do more than others to care for their incarcerated populations and treat them with dignity. But in general, these institutions are not built to withstand a highly contagious virus such as COVID-19.
It’s almost impossible to do social distancing in a 6-by-8-foot cell. Despite the correctional system being one of our nation’s largest healthcare providers, it’s rare for people on the inside to get the healthcare they need. Washing your hands regularly? Forget about it. Most incarcerated individuals in this country are lucky if they can clean their hands twice a day.
Products such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers and bleach are universally denied to incarcerated people. In almost every state prison, incarcerated people have to buy their own hygiene products — pushing the cost of incarceration onto prisoners and their families.
And yet, at a time when people across the globe are being begged to avoid physical contact with other humans, our criminal justice system continues to do the opposite, sending hordes of people into jails each day. This includes people such as Tyson who commit a technical violation while under community supervision.
Such technical violations, as they’re known, include victimless acts such as missing an appointment with a supervisor, breaking curfew, failing a random drug test, or associating with someone who has a felony record. Any one of us could be found guilty of any one of these things and not be punished for it. But here in the United States, that same leniency is not afforded to people under supervision.
Too often, programs such as probation and parole serve as a setup for reincarceration, when they should instead act as a springboard to success. It’s a big reason why the U.S. has 20% of the world’s incarcerated population, yet just 5% of the total population across the globe. If you think it’s a problem that there are roughly 2.3 million people who are currently incarcerated in the U.S., you’ll be outraged to know that 4.5 million people (1 in every 55 adults) are on some form of community supervision. On a given day, 280,000 of these folks are imprisoned for violations of supervision. More than one-third of them wind up behind bars for a technical violation.
The only way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is by taking a smart approach that prioritizes public health. Ask yourself — as overcrowded jails grapple with keeping their populations safe from COVID-19, including correctional officers, healthcare workers, and other essential staff, is it really smart to be stuffing even more people into these jam-packed facilities? The answer is a resounding “no,” especially as it relates to people who have committed technical violations.
Sending individuals such as them back to jail has no valid public safety benefit. But as jails are a revolving door, it creates potentially deadly consequences for these individuals and people with whom they interact (including prison staff, correctional officers, and their families).
That is why every state and the federal government ought to suspend jail time immediately for technical violations and release people from incarceration who have been locked up for such minor infractions. Some states have already heeded this recommendation, and the federal government has reportedly begun issuing fewer arrest warrants for technical violations. But given the times we’re in, this should be standard operating procedure across the country.
It’s long past time we stop talking away peoples’ liberty for minor technical violations — but now, peoples’ lives are on the line. In the age of a pandemic, any arrest or reincarceration could be a death sentence. America must stop putting people behind bars for minor technical probation and parole violations, starting immediately.
Jessica Jackson is the chief advocacy officer at the REFORM Alliance. David Safavian is the general counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation.