Jail is getting more violent and dangerous in-part because of the pandemic.
The New York Times on Monday profiled Jayshawn Boyd, who was beaten so severely in New Jersey’s Essex County Jail that he’s now re-learning how to walk and eat. Jails in Philly and New York are wrestling with spikes in prison violence, the story says. That trend is already feeding a war of words, and policy, between New York’s incoming mayor and a new, progressive majority on its city council over the use of solitary confinement.
The problems point out how years-long efforts to revamp criminal justice, like bail reform, alternative sentencing are running into speedbumps caused by the coronavirus, which has been pointed to as having a correlation with a spike in violent crime at the same time that jail populations were supposed to be dwindling and some staffers push back on mask and vaccine mandates.
From the New York Times
The pandemic has added its own complications. To reduce crowding and slow the spread of the coronavirus, roughly 700 people were quickly freed from New Jersey jails.
Legislation later enabled the release of 2,258 inmates from prisons the day after the 2020 presidential election in one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population. Since then, nearly 3,000 additional people have been granted early release through the emergency initiative, reducing New Jersey’s prison population by 32 percent since 2018, Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s first year in office.
At the same time, resignations and retirements among guards have increased, according to unions representing prison and jail officers. The unions attribute the attrition rate to pandemic-related fatigue, shifting attitudes toward law enforcement and restrictions in the use of solitary confinement as punishment for infractions, which they believe has contributed to an uptick in violence, including detainees throwing bodily fluids at guards.
If that wasn’t enough, the Marshall Project reports that the Omicron variant is helping Covid-19 overwhelm prisoners and staff.
From the Marshall Project
Still, as caseloads across the country skyrocket and omicron becomes the dominant variant, experts worry the coronavirus is once again poised to sweep through jails and prisons. As in the world outside prison bars, many incarcerated people are struggling with pandemic fatigue. They’re also facing uncertain access to booster shots, widespread vaccine hesitancy and pandemic-driven staffing shortfalls that have created even harsher conditions.
As with previous iterations of the virus, everything about prisons and jails makes them a setup to magnify the harms of omicron. “The overcrowding. The poor sanitary conditions. The lack of access to health care,” said Monik Jimenez, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Masking is only going to do so much when you have people on top of you.”