Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?

By Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker | May 18, 2020

Stoneleigh Fellow Raj Jayadev was featured by The New Yorker as a leader in efforts to responsibly organize mass releases from jails and prisons as the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States.

One early push occurred in Santa Clara County, California, where the country’s first coronavirus deaths were recorded. Raj Jayadev runs Silicon Valley De-Bug, a grassroots group that helps incarcerated people devise creative strategies to fight their cases. Some eighty per cent of people in the county jail are awaiting trial, often because they can’t afford bail. At weekly De-Bug meetings, families put together “social biography packets,” stuffed with personal photos, letters, and eight-to-ten-minute videos, to present a fuller picture of defendants. In mid-March, as the virus spread, Jayadev worked with Carson White, an attorney with the public defender’s office, who compiled a list of people seeking release from the county jail. White negotiated with prosecutors, the sheriff’s office, and pretrial services, and an agreement was reached to shrink the jail’s population by twenty per cent. On March 19th, the county released an initial group of about a hundred and fifty people. Since then, the jail’s population has been reduced by more than a thousand. “This moment has flipped the script on mass incarceration,” White told me. “It’s laid bare that caging huge swaths of our society isn’t necessary—it’s just convenient.”

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