In response to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, decarceration advocates have called for the release of at least some inmates from New York City jails. The Legal Aid Society (which recently filed a lawsuit demanding the release of certain prisoners in state and city facilities) and the City’s Board of Correction, which oversees the Department of Correction, are among the organizations calling on the city to consider the release of “vulnerable” inmates. Mayor de Blasio obliged, releasing hundreds of inmates last week. As for state prisons, Governor Cuomo is following suit.

The advocates argue that inmates with underlying health problems are at high risk of serious complications associated with Covid-19. New York City inmates are so densely housed, the argument goes, that viruses like Covid-19 can spread more quickly in the jails than they would outside. “There is literally no escape, with little to no space for social distancing,” wrote German Lopez of Vox. “You cannot implement effective social distancing in a room that sleeps forty men,” a Rikers Island doctor recently told The New Yorker.

Whether New York City (or any other jurisdiction, for that matter) should release some or all of its jail inmates is ultimately a question of costs and benefits, the answer to which relies heavily on epidemiological considerations that I’m not equipped to assess. Yet the fact that Gotham’s leaders face such a choice exposes another problem, which these leaders contributed to by shrinking jail capacity so drastically over the last several years.

Observers of New York City’s incarceration rate may wonder why detainees are still sleeping 40 to a room, given that the jail population has been reduced by more than 50 percent over the last 20 years. The answer: as the city has locked up fewer people, the system’s capacity has also been significantly reduced. In 2000, New York City jails had an average daily population of 15,530, which, according to that year’s Mayor’s Management Report, represented 97.7 percent of system capacity. By 2010, the city’s jail population was down to 13,049, or 93 percent of system capacity, which had been reduced by more than 1,800 beds, to 14,031. By 2019, the average daily jail population was down to 7,938, or 72 percent of capacity, meaning that beds had been cut by 30 percent since 2000, to just 11,025. As part of the plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with a borough-based jail system, the city’s jail capacity will shrink to just 3,500 inmates by 2026. Reducing capacity to this degree will surely result not only in more dangerous criminals on the street but also more crowded jails.

Rather than proceed with the current “Close Rikers” plan—the viability of which may be affected by an emerging fiscal crisis—policymakers have an opportunity to address the capacity problem that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore. Overcrowding presents a host of challenges in correctional settings beyond disease control. According to one study published in 1985, facilities with “large, open bay dormitories” have higher assault rates than other prisons, as do “prisons housing significantly more inmates than a design capacity based on sixty square feet per inmate.” A recent Italian study found that overcrowding was strongly associated with higher rates of recidivism. Earlier this year, researchers in Switzerland found that overcrowding and turnover increased violence within prisons.

Overcrowding has also been linked to a higher risk of inmate suicide, as well as psychologically detrimental “hypervigilance,” an edginess that leads people to react precipitously to perceived threats. Overcrowding can limit correctional officials’ options for housing certain inmates in optimum settings based on their risk classifications. This can result in lower-risk inmates being housed with higher-risk prisoners, which research shows can lead to negative outcomes for the lower-risk group.

The research on prison overcrowding supports broadening New York State’s prison capacity as well—especially since Governor Cuomo recently proposed closing an unspecified number of prisons and consolidating the state’s inmate population. The state has already closed 17 prisons since 2010. Cuomo recently boasted that he was “proud to have closed more prisons than any governor in history.” But with the state now under enormous pressure to release inmates early due to its inability to ensure social distancing, the governor may be wishing he still had some of that lost capacity. Mayor de Blasio still has time to change course—and give city inmates more breathing room.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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