14 Public Health Experts Advocate for Releasing People from Jails & Prisons

On March 24, 2020, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL), and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) filed an emergency petition imploring the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of people who are incarcerated in the Commonwealth’s jails, prisons, and houses of correction.

The Houston Institute is honored to represent a group of 14 public health experts as amici curiae in support of this petition. The letter we filed notes that prisons and jails are particularly dangerous places for rapidly spreading infections. For one thing, Massachusetts disproportionately incarcerates people who are particularly vulnerable to severe, even life-threatening, cases of COVID-19, whether because of structural racism, disparate incarceration, and inequitable access to healthcare and other social determinants of health, or because of exposure to air pollution, a history of smoking, age, and/or chronic illness.

Public health and ‘public safety’ are inherently intertwined. Releasing incarcerated people and reducing the flow of new people into correctional settings would advance the fundamental goal of public safety: protecting people from harm and saving lives.

Incarcerated people are also especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to immutable conditions of confinement, well-documented unhygienic environments, and inadequate medical care in carceral facilities. Confinement itself creates risk of rapidly spreading contagions, but overcrowding compounds those general risks. Harsh, unhygienic environments further heighten risks, and correctional facilities in Massachusetts have a long history of failing to resolve documented environmental health violations. Finally, inadequate medical care in correctional facilities threatens lives.

Uncontrolled spread in correctional settings directly imperils the lives and health of people behind bars; that alone should prompt urgent action. But such a situation could also have dire implications for the health and safety of the general public. The safest response is to release as many people as practicable to self-isolate, especially those who are vulnerable due to health or age, and reduce the flow of new people into jails and prisons. This would protect those who are released, the general public, and those who remain incarcerated and who staff the facilities.

The surest way to contain the spread of an infectious disease in a jail or prison is to reduce its population.

The expert signatories to the letter of amici curiae are:

Dr. Mary T. Bassett, MD, MPH
Former Commissioner, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
Director, François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights
FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, Department of Social and Behavioral Science, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Prof. Leo Beletsky, JD, MPH
Professor of Law and Health Sciences, Northeastern University School of Law & Bouvé College of Health Sciences
Director, Health in Justice Action Lab
Associate Adjunct Professor, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Prof. Charles Branas, PhD
Gelman Endowed Professor, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
Chair, Department of Epidemiology, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Prof. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, PhD
Assistant Professor of Social Medicine, UNC–Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Faculty Member, UNC Center for Health Equity Research

David Cloud, JD, MPH
Research and Program Manager, University of California San Francisco Division of Geriatrics
PhD candidate, Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University

Dr. Warren J. Ferguson, MD
Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Prof. Robert E. Fullilove, EdD
Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University Medical Center
Associate Dean, Community and Minority Affairs, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD
Professor of Urban Policy and Health, The New School

Dr. Sandro Galea, MD, MPH, DrPH
Dean, Boston University School of Public Health
Robert A. Knox Professor, Boston University School of Public Health

Prof. Gregg Gonsalves, PhD
Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, Yale School of Medicine
Associate Adjunct Professor of Law, Yale Law School
Co-Director, Global Health Justice Partnership and Collaboration for Research Integrity and Transparency

Dr. Monik C. Jiménez, ScD
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, MD, MPH
Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, Brown University
Director, Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights
Attending Physician, The Miriam Hospital

Dr. Lisa Simon, DMD
Fellow in Oral Health and Medicine Integration, Harvard School of Dental Medicine
Correctional Dentist in Massachusetts

Dr. Bram Wispelwey, MD, MS, MPH
Chief Strategist & Co-Founder, Health for Palestine
Associate Physician, Brigham & Women’s Hospital
Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School
2020 Fellow, Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity

READ THE LETTER: