26 Jan Unclear Biden Path for Prisons During COVID-19
How you look back at the one-term Trump administration depends a lot on who you are. For some, it might have been the best four years of your life. For others, it might have been the worst. And for most, you probably fall somewhere in between the two. That’s just as true on a big-picture level as it is when it comes to prisons during COVID-19. But now that President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has been sworn in, advocates across the country want to know: How quick will the Biden administration act when it comes to prisons during COVID-19? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear.
Biden Campaigned on Taking Significant Steps on Criminal Justice Reform
During his campaign, President Biden promised to put criminal justice reform at the front and center of his work. He “call[ed] for the immediate passage of Congressman Bobby Scott’s SAFE Justice Act, an evidence-based, comprehensive bill to reform our criminal justice system ‘from front-end sentencing reform to back-end release policies.’” But he also pledged to “go further” and “take bold action to reduce our prison population.”
Now, during the COVID-19 crisis, is the perfect time to reduce our prison population. On Jan. 14, 2021, the BOP released an update on the COVID-19 spread in the U.S. prison system. According to the release, 42,391 out of 123,052 federal prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. This means that over 34 percent — more than one out of every three — of federal prisoners have tested positive. These numbers are staggering, and drastic measures are needed to address them.
Biden Proposed the American Rescue Plan Before His Inauguration
In the days leading up to his inauguration, President Biden released his proposed stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan. CNN accurately summarized all the different areas the proposed plan touched on. The proposal addressed stimulus payments, unemployment aid and help for the hungry. It includes rental assistance and imposes a moratorium on evictions. It also addresses a variety of tax, health insurance and paid leave measures. In addition, it provides increased funding for states and schools as well as funding to facilitate COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.
Media outlets across the country generally reported Biden’s COVID-19 plan as a positive, including when it comes to prisons. Business Insider, for example, described Biden’s proposal as “a wide range of measures to tackle the virus totaling more than $400 billion.” The publication specifically praised Biden for “including policies that focus specifically on underserved communities like people of color, nursing homes and prisons.” However, from what’s available now, it’s hard to know how much the Biden plan will truly focus on COVID-19 in prisons.
Biden Proposal Addresses COVID-19 in Prisons, But It Doesn’t Say Much
The Biden camp also released a 19-page summary of the president’s American Rescue Plan. While the summary is fairly detailed on some points, it leaves much to be desired when it comes to prisons. The summary asserts that the American Rescue Plan will “[p]rotect vulnerable populations in congregate settings,” and it recognizes prisoners as one of those vulnerable populations.
The paragraph addressing prisons starts by emphasizing the alarming statistic mentioned above: “1 in 5 state and federal prisoners in the U.S. has had COVID-19.” The summary states that the proposed plan “supports COVID-19 safety in federal, state and local prisons, jails, and detention centers by providing funding for COVID-19 mitigation strategies….” This “include[s] supplies and physical distancing; safe re-entry for the formerly incarcerated; and the vaccination of both incarcerated people and staff.”
But that’s basically all the Biden summary offers when it comes to prisons during COVID-19. The only other reference to prisons is in the section proposing to “[s]cale up testing to stop the spread of COVID, safely reopen schools and protect at-risk populations.” The summary states that “[e]xpanded testing will ensure … that settings like prisons and long-term care facilities can regularly test their populations[.]”
A Focus on Prisons and COVID-19 Is Good, But We Need More
The spread of COVID-19 in U.S. prisons is terrifying, and the American Rescue Plan specifically addresses the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. So far, all we know about his plan is that it includes support for supplies and physical distancing, as well as funding for vaccines and testing.
However, as the Drug Policy Alliance wrote last month, health experts from around the country are calling for more. In a letter to the Biden camp signed by hundreds of health advocates and experts, the signers called on Biden “to advance pandemic relief strategies that substantially reduce federal, state and local incarceration levels.” That call is arguably more important now that it was then, just one month ago.
For now, health advocates and experts must wait. President Biden hasn’t even completed his first week in office, and as we all know, criminal justice reform and prison reform take time. But President Biden campaigned on making significant criminal justice and prison reforms — campaign promises that advocacy groups like Interrogating Justice will hold him accountable for.