Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Mar 4, 2021

In Episode 3 of Series 6, Todd is joined by David Fathi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project to discuss the impact of Covid19 on prisons and prisoners in the USA.

00.00 – 04.40

David provides an overview of the prison system in the USA. The country has:

  • the largest prison population in the world at over 2 million people
  • the highest per capita rate of prisoners at between 5 and 10 times the rate for countries like Canada, England, and Wales and even authoritarian countries like China

Incarceration in the United States is highly decentralized across 51 different prison systems. Every state has its own prison system separate from and running alongside the federal prison system, and within that the private, for profit prisons account for around 10 percent of the national prison population. 

There are concerns relating to private run prisons, which have led to the Biden administration removing private companies from operating federal prisons. Concerns raised include:

  • lack of oversight
  • poor quality rehabilitation services and programming
  • low levels of safety and security

04.40 – 06.07

The conversation moves on to discuss rehabilitation. David notes that rehabilitation has a very low profile in the U.S. prison system. The extensive use of solitary confinement works contrary to rehabilitation.

06.07 – 09.33

David says the drivers of the prison population date back to the days of slavery, structural racism and the Jim Crow laws. He points to the post-Civil War period in the US when there was a deliberate policy of incarcerating black people. He adds that its legacy exists today in the fact that a black male is 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white man. 

The penal system and culture is described by David as punitive rather that restorative: 

  • average sentences are longer than in comparable democracies. 
  • early termination of sentences is less likely.
  • many more prisoners serve life sentences (1 in 11 of all prisoners)
  • few efforts to rehabilitate and release

09.33 – 12.00

The US is also amongst the worst countries in terms of its use of solitary confinement. There are significant numbers of prisoners on death row who are kept in permanent solitary confinement often for over 10 years. It is estimated that over 100,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement on a daily basis, a number which has increased during the COVID pandemic.

12.02 – 18.30

Todd moves on to ask about the early release from prison of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal lawyer as an example of prominent individuals gaining release citing medical vulnerability to Covid19. David agrees that affluent/prominent people are treated differently by the system, but also contends not enough prisoners have been released as a result of Covid19. This does not make sense, he says because prisons are hotspots of Covid19 infection due to:

  • large numbers of inmates
  • high population density
  • poor ventilation
  • poor sanitation
  • an ageing and therefore more vulnerable group to Covid19 population 

Although data show one in five inmates have tested positive, and anecdotally ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted, there are no data on whether/how BAME prisoners have been adversely affected because that data are not recorded. David says it’s hard to see this data omission as anything other than intentional.

18.30 – 21.30

The situation is similar in other detention centres, immigration centres, jails etc, but the problems of control are enhanced by the rapid turnover of people through those facilities. Todd asks how successful ACLU has been in its efforts to get prisoners released because of Covid. David says they have had:

  • significant success in getting people released from detention centres due to medical vulnerability to Covid19
  • very little success at getting vulnerable inmates released from prisons
  • some success in terms of mitigation of infection risk in prisons


Todd asks about the prospects for a reduction in the size of the prison population. David says the problem is the decentralised nature of the penal system, which works against the ability to bring about reform. This has a parallel in the drive to get all of the population vaccinated against the Covid19 virus, which is also being hindered by the same federated structure. This, he adds, begs the question of where prisoners fit in the priority system for vaccination.

Further Links from ACLU