What a coincidence! America has a little less than 5 percent of the world population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and the world’s Covid cases. Here in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave (Pause for tears and laughter) we have far more people (per capita) in prison than any other country. Only Russia comes close.

Half of the world’s prison population of about 9 million is held in the U.S., China or Russia. Prison rates in the U.S. are the world’s highest, at 724 people per 100,000. In Russia the rate is 581.

But, the U.S. is far behind other rich countries in coronavirus response. Daily case counts in U.S. have declined recently, but are still the second-highest in the world, behind India. Of the 10 countries currently recording the highest daily caseloads, the U.S. is the only high-income country.

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A study reported by the Pew Charitable Trust reveals that:

“COVID-19 has raged throughout U.S. jails and prisons, where people live together in close quarters and there is little opportunity for social distancing, a lack of basic sanitary supplies and high rates of chronic disease.

While inmates mostly stay behind concrete walls and barbed wire, those barriers can’t contain an infectious disease like COVID-19. Not only can the virus be brought into jails and prisons, but it also can leave those facilities and spread widely into surrounding communities and beyond.

The effect may be most pronounced in jails, which mainly house those who are awaiting trial or inmates serving short sentences. Those facilities tend to have more churn than state and federal penitentiaries, with greater numbers of people entering and leaving, thereby increasing opportunities for the disease to disseminate.

Two new studies show that jails can contribute enormously to coronavirus case totals outside their walls. While COVID-19’s spread inside the facilities has been widely reported, the research demonstrates just how great an impact it can have in communities outside.

Depending on the social distancing measures put in place, community spread from infections in jails could add between 99,000 and 188,000 people to the virus’ U.S. death toll, according to a modeling study recently published by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee and Washington State University.”

The U.S. prison population is primarily a result of the Drug War, but we mustn’t talk about that, so let’s pretend it is a mystery. But how is it possible that despite (because of) the Drug War and the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, we also have the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the world?

North America continues to experience the highest drug-related mortality rate in the world, accounting for 1-in-4 drug-related deaths globally. [Source: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ‘World Drug Report 2019’]

In January 2017, the Centre for Disease Control estimated that the number of people in the U.S. who had died from overdose in the 12-month period prior to January 2017 was 64,070. [Source: The Centre for Disease Control ‘Provisional Counts of Drug Overdose deaths, as of 8/6/2017’.]

Of course, mass imprisonment has many health costs beyond communicable diseases. The pandemic is also doing enormous damage to the world’s mental health. Consider that if being frustrated by having to stay home is causing an increase in suicides.

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CDC Director Robert Redfield also commented in July on a spike in suicides:

“There has been another cost that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose,” said Redfield.

Prisoners fear dying of the virus while they are locked up, and, if they are released, they fear that they may infect their families.

Over the years that I have been arguing for the legalization of marijuana, doctors have been saying, “We need to do more research. We don’t know enough about it to legalize it.”

And I have always responded by asking how much research they have done on the health consequences of arresting over 20 million Americans for marijuana possession. After all, that has been their “prescription” for everything.

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Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of the Marijuana Weekly News syndicated column


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