As the more infectious Omicron variant sweeps across the United States, the nearly 2 million people incarcerated in America are facing intensifying levels of danger and instability. Under the weight of ongoing Covid-19 outbreaks and staff vaccine refusal, sickness, death, no-shows, and rapid turnover, jails and prisons have become increasingly deadly places for those who live and work inside their walls. Failures to protect those held in America’s roughly 5,150 jails and prisons have made these institutions into taxpayer-funded epidemic engines that have driven millions of preventable Covid-19 cases throughout US communities. In response, the consensus among national health and safety experts has been that large-scale decarceration is required to protect the public. For almost two years, lawmakers have largely ignored the appeals of health leaders, incarcerated people, prison staff, and community activists who know very well that, despite claims to the contrary, mass incarceration does not serve public safety.
During the first wave of the pandemic, officials took limited steps to reduce the number of people in their jails and prisons. This led to rapid declines in the incarcerated population, which saw an unprecedented 14 percent drop in a matter of a few months. Notably, this coincided with continued declines in crime rates and no increase in rebooking rates for those released in connection with pandemic measures. It’s also notable that this decline was driven primarily by largely unintended logjams at the front end of the carceral system—as courts shut down and trials were delayed—rather than the systematic, large-scale releases called for by public health and safety experts. During this haphazard process, long-standing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system were exacerbated: the proportion of Black people in the carceral system rose for the first time in a decade, while white people—who are systematically sentenced more leniently than their Black peers and are therefore released more quickly—benefited disproportionately from the chaos.
However uneven they were, these reductions in the incarcerated population were short-lived. By early 2021, as the pandemic raged on and many experienced economic and housing insecurity, jail populations had returned to pre-pandemic levels. And while some state prison systems have seen declines in 2021 (not due to releases but simply because of fewer new convictions and admissions), the federal prison population under Biden has grown for the first time in a decade.