No One Incarcerated Deserves to Die of Covid-19

Letter to the Editor of The New York Times re. “No One Deserves to Die of Covid-19 in Jail

As signatories to the open letter to Governor Cuomo from 120 Columbia University researchers urging the release of prisoners, we applaud and join the Editorial Board of the New York Times in calling for urgent action from state governors, city mayors, and the Attorney General to immediately release more vulnerable women and men from our prisons and jails.

We lend our full support but write to emphasize that this is the time for even more courage and vision: Do not limit relief to minor and non-violent offenses. The criterion should be vulnerability, exposure, and risk to COVID-19. This is especially true for the elderly and infirm incarcerated, many of whom have served decades for violent offenses and now pose no risk to society.

The most reliable social science evidence establishes that the incarcerated elderly, who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and most often individuals with violent crimes, are the least likely to recidivate: “aging people convicted of murder present the lowest risk of re-convictions of any prison population, and among people convicted of all categories of crimes, people aged 50 and older present the lowest risk of committing a new crime.” Incarcerated individuals with health vulnerabilities as well should take priority. There are myriad ways to offset the countervailing risks today through supervision for home release and other means.

This is not the time for timidity, but for bold, courageous, and creative action in furtherance of our shared humanity. We urge the Board to edit and revise. The editorial originally published on April 23, 2020, read: “No Death Sentences for Minor Offenses.”

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 1.23.38 PM

The Board revised the headline to its current title:

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 1.23.57 PM

The reference to jails but not prisons retains the idea of minor offenses and those awaiting trial.

The Board should continue to revise the headline and the body of the editorial. It should read “No One Deserves to Die of Covid-19 in Prison or Jails,” full stop. Or more simply, “No One Incarcerated Deserves to Die of Covid-19.”

It is time to be brave and show more humanity and foresight.


Farah Jasmine Griffin & Bernard E. Harcourt

Co-chairs of the Provost’s Faculty Task Force on Just Societies

April 24, 2020


Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University

Bernard E. Harcourt is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University