The blog of the Urban Institute
June 16, 2020

COVID-19 in the Common Area: The Pandemic is Reinforcing the Interconnected Nature of Corrections

June 16, 2020

COVID-19 is rapidly spreading behind bars, and my inbox is full because of it. As a corrections researcher, concerned emails brimming with ideas for research, funding opportunities, and calls to action ding persistently. It is clear why: the virus demands more from practitioners, academics, allies, advocates, and policymakers than well-meaning words and politically appropriate phrases. The field must respond, in real time.

As a former corrections officer, I know confinement facilities can’t protect society from the illnesses within them, nor are they immune to germs carried by people outside these facilities. For those of us who have worked or been confined in correctional facilities, the news of a virus spreading quickly among corrections populations was troubling but predictable, if not inevitable. It made me cross. It made me curse. It made me write this post.  

“Behind bars” does not inherently mean “forgotten,” “invisible,” or “different.” The line between people who are confined and broader society is thin. Though the COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges to corrections, it also emphasizes the communal and interconnected nature of incarceration and the need to improve how we approach corrections legislation, policy, and practice.

Corrections is community

Although the divide between corrections staff and those they supervise may be clear in the law, in practice, corrections is a communal space for all who find themselves inside its walls. People who are confined, correctional officers, staff, and administrators are not entirely separate entities. Together they form the prison community.

Social distancing guidelines to combat COVID-19 aren’t as effective in the prison community. The common areas, fluctuating population, mandatory physical interactions (such as strip searches, pat downs, and shakedowns), and inherently confined spaces are obstacles to health and wellness.

This connected nature has been true of the prison community long before COVID-19. Research demonstrates that despite a clear power imbalance between incarcerated people and correctional staff, relationships between these groups– both othering and nurturing – exist, including positive interactions and damaging ones, such as inappropriate sexual contact and serving as contraband carriers

Challenging the “Us versus them” divide

The spread of COVID-19 in and out of correctional facilities directly challenges the “us versus them” divide between the confined and corrections staff as well as the one between the prison community and broader society. As the number of corrections-based COVID-19 cases continues to grow, it’s clear the pandemic does not account for these formal distinctions of power and privilege.

The pandemic is shifting the stereotypical notion the confined population’s threat to correctional staff. Staff members’ mobility in and out of facilities increases their risk of being carriers. And even within the different levels of staff, viruses do not discriminate based on uniform color.

These shared health risks have always existed in correctional facilities. Studies show both correctional officers and confined people are at a higher risk of suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and depression and experiencing other types of trauma.

Moving forward

As we move forward, corrections legislation, policy, and practice needs a structural shift from us-versus-them thinking to “we” thinking. Well-meaning words that acknowledge the existence and impact of events on the incarcerated community fall short if they neglect actions. And actions should be informed by a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, and citizens whose investment in reform exceeds good intentions.

There is no quick fix, but there are paths forward. Here are three ways that corrections researchers and practitioners can begin taking we-thinking action:

  1. Expand who is considered a key stakeholder in the research and policy development. Including diverse groups of key stakeholders in policy development and research design is becoming more common. But determining which groups and individuals are involved can be an exclusive process that selects stakeholders based on criteria rooted in us-versus-them thinking. Criminal justice research and policy conversations should include a wider range of stakeholders, such as community members who have never experienced incarceration or the relative, friend, or victim of an offender.
  1. Reinforce the importance of successful reentry by normalizing release through information sharing. The more the general population realizes that we are all affected by incarceration and that formerly incarcerated people are a growing and vital part of our communities, the more we-thinking oriented we become. Information that highlights how the needs, challenges, and lived experiences of formerly incarcerated people directly overlap with societal interests—such as the need for stable housing for all—should be a common theme in corrections stakeholders’ communications efforts.
  1. Humanize the prison community by humanizing the system. Breaking the law results in differential treatment, which leads to us-versus-them thinking. But if policymakers consider equally how the law affects rule breakers and rule followers simultaneously—the offender, the victim, their families, their friends, corrections employees, and the broader community—then the law would we-think, too.

Incarcerated people donned face masks to receive lunch trays at St. Louis County jail on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (Photo by Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.