A COVID-19 Update

Dear Colleagues,

With news and new cases of 2019 novel Coronavirus sweeping the nation and driving a state of panic, a few considerations come to mind for us at The Equitas Project.
Now, more than ever, as remote work becomes the norm, human connection can feel distinctly missing from the day-to-day, but it is vitally important for maintaining mental health. For those of us who have been planning meetings into the spring and summer, the lost prospect of face-to-face collaboration can feel defeating. Yet, mental health and criminal justice are still entangled and the show must go on.
What innovations can we bring to our work to maintain mental health while moving our initiatives forward? Are there opportunities for video calls and other more engaging modes of remote contact we can turn to? Lacking the ability to cruise by a colleague’s desk, can we foster more empathy and understanding in our email correspondence and other forms of written communication? How about prioritizing phone conversations in place of emails?
Aside from the interpersonal, we also must take time for ourselves. Self-care should become less of a catchphrase and more of a habit these days. Are there opportunities to structure each day around the things that make us feel whole, awake, and alive: things like sleep, exercise, quiet time, and entertainment? Setting routines and boundaries can serve as touchstones for wellbeing amid this uncertainty.
We have been heartened to see the rapid action many organizations and individuals have taken to “flatten the curve,” reducing the spread of COVID-19 all across the country. This inspired action can serve as a hopeful reminder and prime example of the resolution Americans have historically put forth when it’s come time to do what it right, even when it’s inconvenient, and even when circumstances are scary and unfamiliar. The upset this crisis is causing can hopefully afford us all a moment to reflect on the realities of and potential solutions available to address mental health and mass incarceration in America.
Our Work Continues
During this public health emergency, we urge you to keep in mind the disproportionate share of our neighbors and community members – and especially those with mental health vulnerabilities and illnesses – who are held in jails and prisons across the country. It is vitally important that state and local governments work to maintain the safety of those rendered powerless to protect themselves from the Coronavirus while incarcerated. Coping with this pandemic will be a strain on everyone’s mental health, so just imagine lacking access to adequate hand washing and sanitation resources as many of those in our jails and prisons do.
Now is a great time for innovation and for implementing new approaches. We like the recommendations put forth by Peter Wagner and Emily Widra at the Prison Policy Initiative, which could slow the spread of the virus among the incarcerated population and simultaneously reduce our reliance on the criminal justice system to address social and health-based problems:
• Release medically vulnerable and older inmates.
• Stop charging copays for medical care in prisons.
• Lower jail admissions to reduce “jail churn.”
• Reduce unnecessary probation and parole meetings.
• End imprisonment for technical parole and probation violations, such as breaking a curfew or failing a drug test.
We would also add the following:
• Implement tele-mental health options for all inmates.
• Prioritize diversion opportunities for suitable candidates, away from incarceration and into community services.
• Continue to (remotely) convene justice and health care system actors toward collaborative reforms.
• Create mental health de-escalation and dispatch resources to improve community responses to mental health and to prevent unnecessary jail contacts for people with mental health concerns.
• Train police to de-escalate and redirect people with unmet mental health needs into care so they never have contact with jails or prisons at all.

While many jurisdictions are working to implement one or more of the above solutions, not all have made them a priority. It is our hope that the innovative thinking born in this time of uncertainty can inspire all of us to reconsider our assumptions about what is possible when it comes to the vital work of disentangling mental health and criminal justice. There is much more work to do at this intersection, and we wish all of our colleagues and partners striving alongside us the best of health and safety during this difficult time.

Onward,

Your friends at The Equitas Project

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