Decarcerate America Now | Opinion

As the U.S. fails to flatten the COVID-19 curve, 2.3 million people locked up in jails and prisons across the country remain at high risk of infection. And while infections keep appearing in more jails and prisons all the time—including the most recent disaster at San Quentin State Prison in California—federal, state and local governments still do not have adequate emergency plans in place for this crisis, or any other. While almost every state institution has emergency planning in place for any kind of natural disaster, from hurricanes to cyber attacks, there is nothing for prisons. At the same time, almost every state relies on the labor of incarcerated people—putting out wildfires in California and digging graves in New York. Yet nothing to protect their lives. This is another very real way that institutional racism is killing Black and Brown Americans right now. Intervention is necessary and urgent. Lives depend on it.

That's why JustLeadershipUSA has launched the #JustUS campaign, a nation-wide call for policymakers to decarcerate the United States by immediately adopting federal and state-based policies aimed at saving the lives of incarcerated people during this major crisis and future emergencies. The Safe Housing Network signed on to this campaign as a strategic partner, to push for changes in California.

Incarcerated people are disproportionately Black and Brown. This is the direct result of the legacy of slavery—and its continued protection by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Policy change is critical both to decarcerating the United States and saving lives. Incarcerated people were sentenced to time, not death.

Through the #JustUs campaign, we have outlined recommendations for emergency action across the full spectrum of the criminal legal system. Law enforcement, courts, jails, prisons, parole and probation must act in sync to save human lives. The emphasis is on stopping the dangerous detention of people who are newly arrested, including ensuring that no one remains locked up because of an exploitative cash bail system; releasing the most vulnerable people, including the elderly and infirm; and reducing the risk of exposure for people on probation or parole. The full list of recommendations and comprehensive policy platform can be found at

But release is not the end. As people are released, they need safe housing and other basic needs met. Recognizing that incarceration is destabilizing and traumatic, the #JustUS campaign calls for adequate supports for those leaving prisons and jails and returning home during the pandemic. Through the SAFE Housing Network, formerly incarcerated people—that is, people who have previously made the reentry journey ourselves—are using our collective knowledge and experience to support reentry in a growing number of communities across the country.

The purpose of the SAFE Housing Network is to create a national network of formerly incarcerated leaders providing wraparound reentry support services that are flexible enough to meet the unique needs of every person. This model is based on Ms. Burton's work for the last 20 years, striving tirelessly to give women like us the opportunity to create new lives for ourselves and our children. We have developed a "bottom up" approach; meeting women as they're released from prison, right where they're at. We recognize that the first step is stability.

We provide them housing and assist with reestablishing community connections and creating an environment that allows women to heal from life traumas, as well as the trauma experienced while incarcerated. This promotes the ability to connect dreams and aspirations of the past, while working towards a better future. This effort taps into the leadership potential of each woman and offers them the opportunity to be part of a broader movement in the fight for justice. Not only is this model the humane thing to do, it is also cheaper than incarceration and essential to decarcerating the United States.

It's a realistic approach. We all need a place to belong, the ability to speak truth to power and lead meaningful lives.

In a world with increasing natural and man-made disasters, having an emergency management plan in place for the country's most vulnerable people is the difference between life and death. Yet while state emergency plans include labor by the detained, including digging graves in New York and putting out wildfires in California, there are little to no emergency management plans to save their lives.

This is not the first time that incarcerated people's lives have been at risk during a crisis. During Hurricane Katrina, while the incarcerated people were left for days without food, water or adequate ventilation—and then left to die on top of a bridge with the flood waters rising around them—the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LSPCA) quickly attended to the stray cats and dogs, far faster than the government did for its own people. During Hurricane Irene there was no evacuation plan for those on Rikers Island, and again during Hurricane Sandy.

This time can and should be different. Formerly incarcerated people, the experts, have developed an emergency plan that the government can implement. The time to act is now.

Susan Burton is founder of the SAFE Housing Network, a nationwide collective of reentry homes modeled after A New Way of Life Reentry Project. DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, the non-profit building a national movement to decarcerate the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​