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State Prisons Released More People Before Covid-19 Than During It

Prison officials touted a compassionate response to Covid, but the statistics tell another story.

incarcerated people in Mississippi
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
People incarcerated at the Bolivar County Correctional Facility in Mississippi gather to receive a Covid-19 vaccination.

As Covid-19 first spread through the United States, it became clear that jails and prisons would see the worst of it. Already suffering from overcrowded, unsanitary facilities and medical neglect, incarcerated people lived in prime conditions for deadly outbreaks. Responding to pressure from advocates, prison officials insisted they would look for opportunities to release people who could go home safely or who were at high risk of dying from the disease.

But state prison statistics show another story: Relatively few people have been released from prisons over the course of the pandemic. According to data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative (where I work as a spokesperson) tracking releases in 11 states, 10 of those states reported releasing even fewer prisoners in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 than they had in 2019. This drop in releases occurred as the coronavirus infected one in every three people in prison nationwide, leading to 2,800 deaths as of this October.

Many prisons did make policy changes designed to expedite early releases. In most places, though, these changes didn’t result in more people going home. An apparent drop in the overall prison population during the last two years, most agree, is due to fewer people being sent to prison in the first place, not people being freed. So why did releases go down? Prison officials say that they make decisions on petitions for early release by weighing several factors, including an individual’s behavior, the nature of their original offense, their potential risk to public safety, and circumstances that might prompt a “compassionate” release (such as a prisoner suffering from severe dementia). To be sure, the pandemic posed logistical challenges—making it hard to hold in-person parole hearings, offer classes that are sometimes prerequisites for parole, or place people in halfway houses. But the pandemic also introduced what should have been a compelling new factor in release decisions: the risk of serious illness or death. One would think this would have tipped the scales in a significant number of cases, adding up to more releases. The fact that it did not raises disturbing questions about the conduct of prison officials.

While the data collected by my colleagues at the Prison Policy Initiative is incomplete, because only some states publish monthly release data, anecdotes and statewide reports help fill in the gaps. We know, for instance, that compassionate releases have stagnated in many states. A recent investigation by The Salt Lake Tribune showed Utah’s parole board didn’t increase compassionate releases during the pandemic; instead it denied people like Jesus Gomez, an 84-year-old man confined to a wheelchair who can’t remember his crimes. Over in Nevada, officials granted zero compassionate releases in 2020; medical staff in its prisons failed even to identify candidates to review. Alabama, whose infamously crowded prisons hold about 28,000 people, identified just 15 candidates for compassionate release last year and granted it to five. Alabama also granted parole to a smaller percentage of the people who applied in the spring and summer of 2020 than it had from 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained a list of the oldest incarcerated people in Alabama, discovering that hundreds were parole-eligible but either had been denied or hadn’t had a hearing.

At the federal level, things aren’t much better. Last year, the Marshall Project reported that at FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison in Texas where all of the prisoners have special medical needs, 349 women applied for compassionate release in 2020—and 346 of them were denied. Among them was Marie Neba, who was suffering from stage 4 cancer, and who later died of Covid-19, along with at least five others. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons did release 24,000 federal prisoners to home confinement during the pandemic, although it is now trying to force thousands of them back to prison.)

Even in states that touted their humanitarian response to the Covid threat in prisons, early releases slowed. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ostensibly invoked an overcrowding statute to free some state prisoners in April 2020, but his order imposed so many criteria (excluding, for instance, anyone who had served more than one sentence) that it “basically eliminated everyone” from being considered for release, Meghan Novisky, a Cleveland State University professor, said last year. The Iowa Department of Corrections boasted that it had created an entirely new second parole board to expedite hearings, but even then, paroles rose by only 4 percent in 2020, and the rate of parole releases (releases granted out of all cases heard by the parole board) actually declined. Last August, an Iowa corrections officer criticized his bosses, saying they “should do more” to release people who were, in his words, “in poor health, a little bit older, probably not going to be a danger to much of anybody.”

In New York, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged in March 2020 to release people locked up for minor violations of parole, a promise that appears to have meant little. A January report from the Partnership for the Public Good found that parole authorities only released 38 percent of people who met the governor’s criteria. Meanwhile, Cuomo granted fewer clemencies than Donald Trump. In Virginia, the governor and corrections department promised to review candidates for early release, then quietly
failed to fulfill their promise. In Florida, the parole board granted freedom to just 1 percent of applicants. The examples go on and on.

Prison officials with the ultimate power to decide who goes free and who stays in prison have displayed an extraordinary level of callousness about the fates to which they were condemning prisoners in their care. The Marshall Project detailed how wardens often blocked or completely ignored compassionate release requests in federal prisons: “They think their job is to keep people in prison, not to let people out,” said Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group FAMM. In the case of Marie Neba, prosecutors argued that she didn’t deserve a 70-year reduction in her 75-year sentence for Medicare fraud. That she would die of Covid-19 was highly possible, but somehow it was worse to imagine that this suffering mother of three might not be in prison. Ultimately, the reason prison releases dropped during Covid-19 may be as simple and distressing as Ring says: that many people who decide prison releases in this country are not interested in alleviating the suffering of people behind bars but, rather, intensifying it.

In 2021, there have been even fewer monthly releases on average than there were in 2020, according to the Prison Policy Initiative data. Despite the public health consequences of releasing so few people, the officials in charge continue to describe themselves as reasonable people balancing empathy with a concern for public safety; last October, an aide to Cuomo, in response to a 500-person outbreak at a prison in Elmira, New York, said releases were “guided by facts [and] scientific data.” Meanwhile, family members of people held in the facility protested a lack of masks, soap, and hand sanitizer and said people inside had been retaliated against for speaking up about living conditions.

We should be skeptical of official statements that project an image of merciful governments even as most people in prison have mercy denied to them. These statements may in fact be a carefully crafted way to obscure a total lack of human concern, combined with an ominous, underlying message to the public: If you question the state’s right to put people at risk of death behind bars, your state parole board may release someone who commits another crime.