Recently, Republican gubernatorial candidate Woody Thrasher started airing an inaccurate and false attack ad.
As The Herald-Dispatch and other news outlets pointed out, the ad wrongly claimed that the Justice administration released a convicted murderer in response to an ACLU-WV call to release more incarcerated individuals.
Virtually every word in candidate Thrasher’s ad is false. He wants to scare you into voting for him, facts be damned.
Enough with lies, innuendo and appeals to fear. Here are the real facts: Reducing the incarcerated population will reduce the infection and death rate for all of us.
Overcrowding makes each of our jails and prisons a potential time bomb for an outbreak. A prison in Marion, Ohio, has already seen more than 80 percent of its nearly 2,500 inmates test positive for COVID-19.
Despite limited testing, more than 17,000 incarcerated individuals and more than 5,000 corrections staff around the country have so far tested positive. The true numbers are likely much higher.
This presents a humanitarian crisis inside these facilities and a drain on community medical resources. It’s the opposite of flattening the curve.
These outbreaks do not simply stay within prison walls. There is a constant churning of people in and out of facilities. Corrections staff go home, they go to the grocery store and interact with their families.
This revolving door means that people can carry the virus into the system, where it spreads like wildfire. And they can just as easily carry it out of the system into the community.
The Trump administration estimates that 100,000 Americans are expected to die as a result of COVID-19. A team of ACLU statisticians and academic researchers found that unless substantial steps are taken to decarcerate our prisons, and especially our jails, the real death toll could be twice that.
But if we stop arrests for all but the most serious offenses, and if we double the rate of release for jail detainees, the model shows we can save the lives of as many as 23,000 people in jail and 76,000 in the broader community.
Hundreds and hundreds of people are locked up in our regional jails awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of any crime and are presumed innocent. They’re only in jail because they cannot afford to purchase their freedom.
Many others are locked up in our state for drug crimes and technical parole violations. We can prevent a massive public health risk by releasing much larger numbers of incarcerated people without a significant risk to public safety.
We must also immediately invest in offering tests to all incarcerated people and corrections staff. Gov. Jim Justice wisely recognized that nursing homes are among the most significant potential drivers of the spread of COVID-19. Our jails and prisons pose a similar — possibly greater — threat.
We also must focus significant efforts on finding transitional housing and services for people who are leaving the system. This problem existed prior to the pandemic, and the need is greater now. We cannot let our failures to provide for people reentering society be an impediment to fighting coronavirus.
The West Virginia jail population has fallen about 20% and the prison population has fallen about 7% since the pandemic started. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.
Our obsession with maintaining our brutal system of mass incarceration is clouding our rational thought. We have so bought into the fallacies around crime that we are putting tens of thousands of lives at risk in the darkly ironic pursuit of “public safety.”
If we are serious about minimizing the spread of COVID-19 — and about saving human lives — we must make decarceration a top priority.
If we’re not serious, we can keep making TV ads full of lies and scary stories.