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What COVID-19 Reveals About Incarceration and How We Can Transform the Prison System

We are being offered an opportunity to carefully examine a destructive, expensive, punitive system and transform it into one that could be just, restorative, and good for individuals and society as a whole.

If cities, states, and the federal government can choose to release prisoners due to COVID-19, what does that tell us about the purpose and meaning of imprisonment? (Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images)

If cities, states, and the federal government can choose to release prisoners due to COVID-19, what does that tell us about the purpose and meaning of imprisonment? (Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images)

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, I volunteered at a women’s “correctional institution,” a euphemism for prison. So many of the prisoners I worked with shared similar stories: They grew up in foster care, were separated from siblings, experienced childhood sexual abuse, wound up on the streets, became addicted to drugs, and turned to prostitution to support themselves and their drug habits.

As I witnessed these already victimized and traumatized women endure imprisonment—with all the damage that incarceration would surely bring, even after they were released—I began to reflect on the purpose of prisons, as well as the strange term—corrections—used to describe the prison system.

These women were not being “corrected.” They were not being rehabilitated, supported, or educated so that they could escape the vicious abuse-additction-prostitution cycle. In addition, taxpayers were paying a hefty bill to incarcerate them.

When solutionaries seek to understand a problem, they look for the interconnected systems that perpetuate it, and they also look for the deeper causes—the beliefs, values, and worldviews—that lead to the creation of those systems.

In the case of imprisonment, some of the underlying beliefs include:

“People should be punished for wrongdoing.”

“Society should avenge lawbreakers.”

“Without punishment, people will persist in doing bad things.”

And, more bluntly, “Do the crime, do the time.”

But given that we call the system “corrections,” there are surely other beliefs, such as:

“People sometimes do things that are destructive to the social fabric, and it’s important that they understand their negative impacts and perform community service.”

“When people cause harm to others, they should make amends.”

“It’s better for everyone when people sincerely learn from mistakes and seek to contribute positively thereafter.”

And, more bluntly, “Let them give back, not be supported by taxpayers.”

Our belief systems about punishment start early. For example, in terms of parenting, it was once believed that corporal punishments like spanking and hitting children were acceptable and effective disciplinary methods. Thankfully, this violent approach to child-rearing has largely been abandoned in the U.S. as parents have realized that such punitive practices do more harm than good.

Serving on that jury reinforced my belief that our “corrections” system is destructive, not solutionary; punitive, not restorative.

Our society’s approach to infractions in school is still mostly punitive, however. In 2018, high school students in Portland, Maine, who were part of a solutionary team in a human rights course, decided to address their school’s disciplinary policies. In their high school, as in most high schools in the US, students who broke rules were suspended, and in some cases expelled.

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The solutionary team, comprised of diverse students, questioned the wisdom of punishing fellow classmates, including those who skipped school, by suspending them. As they examined the effects of disciplinary policies like suspension, they began to see how these policies might inadvertently contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” particularly among Black youth.

To intervene in this system, they identified restorative justice practices that help students stay in school through mentorship and support. When asked why he cared so much about this problem, one of the young men said, “I just want everyone to succeed.” The school adopted the students’ suggestions in a new restorative justice-based policy.

About 15 years ago, I served on a jury in a trial in which the defendant was accused of a DUI that resulted in a crash, killing one of the passengers in the car. The crash had happened many years before the trial took place. Just as our jury was about to deliberate and decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence, I was told by the judge that I was an alternate, and my jury duty was over. I would not be participating in the decision about this man’s fate.

I was relieved. There was so much evidence against him that I would have been hard-pressed to say he was not guilty, even though I didn’t believe he should be imprisoned, which would have been the outcome of a guilty verdict. What value would incarceration have had at that point? So many years had already been lost in which he could have made reparations and been required to contribute meaningfully in some other way.

Serving on that jury reinforced my belief that our “corrections” system is destructive, not solutionary; punitive, not restorative. If high school students can bring about positive changes to their school’s disciplinary practices, we adults should be able to bring about such changes to our corrections systems.

To be clear, we need to keep dangerous people removed from the rest of society, but violent crime has not been responsible for the dramatic increase in incarceration (from approximately 500,000 prisoners in 1980 to approximately 2.2 million in 2016). In fact, violent crime has generally declined, and less than half of inmates in the US. are serving sentences for violent offenses.

If we were ever uncertain about the value of imprisoning so many people for nonviolent crimes, COVID-19 is making it clear that there is little to no value at all. In response to the pandemic (and as of this writing) many cities and states have released or are releasing non-violent offenders, with New York City having released approximately 900; New Jersey releasing more than 1,000, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation releasing as many as 3,500. The federal government is also releasing prisoners from federal prisons.

If cities, states, and the federal government can choose to release prisoners due to COVID-19, what does that tell us about the purpose and meaning of imprisonment?

It tells us that there is no important reason to keep so many nonviolent offenders in prison and that these people’s incarceration was never intended to protect society. It also reminds us that they were not incarcerated to be rehabilitated. We’ve wasted so much taxpayer money and damaged (perhaps ruined) so many lives. For what? If deterrence, rather than punishment, was our rationale for incarceration, we should have re-examined our success at meeting this goal long ago, since recidivism among prisoners is so high.

Instead of incarcerating people, we could be spending a fraction of the costs of imprisonment on:

  • Treatment for addicts and alcoholics convicted of criminal acts 
  • Supervised plans for restitution and reparations by nonviolent criminals 
  • Education and meaningful job training so that offenders have opportunities to find decent-paying, legal jobs

We could also:

  • Decriminalize prostitution, drug use, and other nonviolent offenses and put the money spent on our expensive legal and corrections system into treatment and education as suggested above
  • Eliminate for-profit private prisons, which are by definition incentivized to profit from incarceration

It’s important to note that these ideas don’t address all that is unjust in our prison system. According to the NAACP, the racial disparities for arrests and convictions have led to a hugely disproportionate rate of incarceration of African American and Latinx people. For example, African American and white people use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of white offenders.

Let’s not forget that imprisonment also extends to asylum-seekers who often wind up in detention centers for years and, in some cases, are separated from their children, who end up in other detention centers.

As prisoners are released by the thousands due to COVID-19, at a time when many people are experiencing “lockdown” in their homes, we are being offered an opportunity to carefully examine a destructive, expensive, punitive system and transform it into one that could be just, restorative, and good for individuals and society as a whole.

This article first appeared at Psychology Today.

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), which offers online graduate degrees in comprehensive Humane Education; solutionary-focused programs and workshops; and an award-winning free resource center. Zoe has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She is the author of numerous books, including: The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries (2016); Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Claude and Medea (2007). Zoe is the recipient of the Unity College Women in Environmental Leadership award and was a subject of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

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