The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare some of the hidden truths of our justice systems. Our jails and prisons have always been hotbeds of health epidemics, from infectious diseases to mental health epidemics to the opioid epidemic. This pandemic, however, demonstrated that an essential component of improving public health required releasing people to robust public systems that would support justice-involved individuals as they safely live back in the community. The scientific community and the criminal justice community have rallied around the fact that decarceration is a public health tool, and that public health is public safety.
Now that we are, hopefully, in the latter days of the pandemic, jails and prisons are once again seeing increases in the number of individuals that are entering these facilities—along with an increase in the number infections behind bars. The science, however, has not changed, and testing and decarceration remain a key factor in mitigating the remaining public health crises in incarceration settings.
In order to continue the decarceration gains made during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Office of Justice Programs announced last week that it would be investing $700 million to public health agencies across the country to invest in jail, prison and juvenile justice facilities to plan and implement COVID-19 testing and mitigation, including reducing facility population through diversion and release programs. This investment in public health systems will provide a critical booster shot to the decarceration efforts underway, and will help change the way siloed health and justice systems lead to worse health and justice outcomes. The guidance for the award is available here.
There is light on the horizon for improvements to the criminal legal system and our safety net systems. The CDC and OJP’s grant program and the growing consensus that the Medicaid inmate exclusion policy does harm to justice-involved people and communities are opening up new conversations about the harms our carceral systems do. We are grateful to continue to be a part of that conversation with you.
Director of Health Care Initiatives for Justice-Involved Individuals