Holidays in Holding: Mass Incarceration in the 2020 Holiday Season

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We have reached the holiday season of 2020 and for many people around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to be in a joyous mood. It seems like every day in the U.S. comes with a new record number of COVID-19 related deaths, as cases of infection continue to soar due to the public’s negligent behavior and dreadful response on the federal level.

Job loss and the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic have undoubtedly put a damper on folks’ ability to give gifts to their loved ones. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other medical agencies have repeatedly advised against travel. Many Americans are having to adjust to the harsh reality of not being in the presence of family and friends during the one time out of the year where fellowship is the cornerstone of celebrating the season.

But for the incarcerated population, the 2020 holiday season is that much more disheartening. The absence of freedom combined with a callous approach of virus mitigation by leaders of correctional facilities has placed hundreds of thousands of prisoners in harm’s way.

As nationwide calls for police defunding and re-examination of the criminal justice system grow with every new case of police violence and wrongful conviction, the American incarcerated are often the centerpiece of humanitarian discussions regarding this nation’s prison industrial complex.

Imprisonment amid a pandemic

According to a report from, the American criminal justice system holds roughly 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals and prisons in the U.S. territories.

The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world despite being the world’s third-largest nation. China, the most populated country in the world with a population nearly four times the size of the United States, has nearly half the amount of incarcerated citizens.

It should be no surprise that America, which leads the world in coronavirus cases and fatalities, would also have the highest numbers of incarcerated people infected with COVID-19. According to The Marshall Project, at least 249,883 people in prison had tested positive for coronavirus as of December 8, a week that recorded the highest number of new infections since the start of the pandemic.

Race matters when deciding who goes home for the holidays

One in three Black men and one in 18 Black women born in the year 2001 have a lifetime likelihood of becoming incarcerated, according to a report from The Sentencing Project. Though there has been a narrowing of the racial gap of America’s prison population, Black Americans are still incarcerated at a wildly disproportionate rate.

To merely subscribe to the numbers of incarcerated Black Americans as a definitive confirmation about Black criminality is to be naive about the ways the criminal justice system unfairly treats Black defendants. A 2017 study shared by CNN indicated that Black people were 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug-related crimes, 22 percent more likely to be wrongfully convicted in murder cases than white defendants and accounted for 47 percent of exonerated cases that were overturned due to police and prosecutor misconduct.

Organizations such as the Innocence Project work tirelessly on behalf of the wrongfully convicted to ensure exonerations and to break patterns of unjust sentences. A lion share of their efforts is spent helping Black incarcerated people reunite with their loved ones not only for the holidays but indefinitely.

Abuse as the complete opposite of holiday cheer

Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a federal lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections for its horrendous prison conditions. The lawsuit is holding prison officials in Alabama responsible for failure to protect prisoners from inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual abuse, failure to protect them from excessive force by staff and failure to provide safe conditions of confinement.

The investigation into Alabama’s Department of Corrections started four years ago and according to the DOJ, conditions have worsened. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey was reportedly “disappointed” in the DOJ’s decision to proceed with the lawsuit, as she proclaimed the state was “actively negotiating in good faith with the Department of Justice” after their initial findings.

The conditions in Alabama prisons, though extreme, are not exclusive to the state’s penal system. All over the country, America’s incarcerated population are subjected to inhumane treatment by prison personnel, though the narrative often suggests the brutality they endure is always at the hands of their fellow prisoners.

Supporting the work of prisoner advocacy groups

Despite the often demonizing label that comes with America’s incarcerated, there are several advocacy groups that advocate for the humanity of the imprisoned. Groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative, Human Rights Watch, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Innocence Project and many other organizations have a mission and vision centered around decarceration, challenging racial injustice in the legal system and restoring the dignity and virtue of citizens who have been locked away.

If America has any hope of transforming itself from being a nation that champions punitive justice over restorative justice, it will need the help of groups that do the work of reimagining the nuances of crime and punishment.

Every person that is considered property of the state is fully human. A sizable number of their lives hang in the balance of an unjust system that often persecutes based on how marginalized a defendant’s identity is while allowing the privileged to roam about in a lawless manner.

America is home to far too many folks yearning for a holiday miracle of liberation. If we all desire a more equitable nation, we cannot willfully ignore their wishes, especially when they have been victimized by a Grinch of a legal apparatus that stole their freedom unfairly.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be