For the past 40 years, almost every criminal justice innovation that was touted as “improving public safety” really meant increasing incarceration.

Widespread pretrial detention, mandatory minimums, dismantling parole, stop-and-frisk, longer prison sentences — all of these tough-on-crime measures had the overriding aim of reducing the risk of crime. But even if incarceration reduced the risk of crime, and there is some evidence that it does in the short term, there are long-term countervailing fiscal, legal, and moral considerations that should be taken into account. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there are critical health considerations as well.

One of the unexpected lessons of COVID-19 is that packing jails and prisons with millions of people has unforeseen risks, not just to those who staff and are controlled by the penal system, but to the public at large. The system, ostensibly intended for safety, is making us all sick and is killing people. Ohio’s prisons provide a tragic lesson.

An outbreak of the coronavirus at the state’s Marion Correctional Institution caused Ohio to take the laudable step of testing all those incarcerated in the prison, as well as at the nearby Pickaway Correctional Institution. Ohio officials found that more than 88% of the men incarcerated at Marion tested positive for the coronavirus.

As of July 13, 616 incarcerated people and 46 staff members have died across the state. Everywhere Ohio has tested for the coronavirus in its prisons, it has discovered wildfires of infection. The prisons in Marion and Pickaway are the two largest virus clusters in America. Nationally, prisons and jails comprise a majority of the 10 biggest hot spots. Unfortunately, Ohio has now discontinued widespread testing in prisons, but cases and deaths continue to rise. You can’t lock up the truth for long during this pandemic.

For too many, prisoners are “out of sight, out of mind.” There’s an inhumanity to how we treat people locked up in our prisons and jails, as if they deserve what befalls them or that little can be done to prevent it. It is hard to imagine what could be more cruel or unusual than sentencing someone to become infected by a fatal virus with no cure in sight.

The short-sightedness of this approach is also disturbing. Prisons are porous places. What goes on in these facilities affects the communities around them. Marion is now driving infections in the surrounding counties, which have infection rates that rival Cleveland and Columbus. In a similar way, testing reveals that 1 in every 6 infections in Chicago is related to a major COVID-19 outbreak at the Cook County jail. This is not surprising to anyone who knows anything about prisons. Staff, law enforcement, contractors, and workers rotate through every day, trading germs and viruses with the people inside and transmitting them to those outside.

Consider this reality with our long-held notion of public safety, namely locking people up, and the uncertainty of how long we will have to live with this highly contagious disease. To anyone paying attention, these factors bring the costs of overcriminalization and incarceration into crystal-clear detail. Overcrowded prisons (Ohio’s system is at 130% capacity) are like landmines — buried under the surface and half-forgotten but liable to explode and become dangerous to everyone around them.

The negative effects of mass incarceration don’t end at the prison door. The war on drugs, and tough-on-crime policy generally, has diminished the Fourth and Fifth Amendment civil liberties of all citizens. Commando policing tactics and mass incarceration have driven a wedge between law enforcement and communities of color. Innocent families and children suffer heart-wrenching long-term effects when a parent or wage earner is locked up.

So what is safety in the pandemic era? For starters, safety has come to mean security in one’s home and livelihood, to be healthy, and to be free of fear for the well-being of loved ones. To accomplish these goals, we must acknowledge the destructive force of violence posed by police and prisons, especially in poor communities of color. A richer idea of public safety also includes freedom from the many scourges that come along with systemic racism and poverty: housing instability, income insecurity, untreated health problems, environmental toxins, and, most importantly, incarceration.

At some point in the future, life will get back to normal. But the lessons of this pandemic, especially its revelation of flaws, inefficiencies, and injustices, show how so many settled ideas and ways of doing business need transformation. Our thin and fearful notion of “public safety” is one of them.

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