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Mass Decarceration and COVID-19

How can we meet this moment? We must begin by solving the crisis of imagination. In this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Deanna Van Buren, co-founder and design director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, and F. Javier Torres-Campos, director of Surdna’s Thriving Cultures program, explore our current crisis of imagination.

They reveal what it looks like when communities of color are given the agency to engage their creative powers in redesigning destructive systems and building their own just ones. They also offer a beginner’s roadmap for those in positions of power and privilege to help radically reimagine systems.

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, US prisons and jails are drivers for the catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19. Because of dense living conditions, limited soap and hand sanitizer, poor access to quality healthcare, and an increasingly elderly population, the outbreaks we’ve seen so far may be just the beginning.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of municipalities are already working to meet the crisis by reducing prison populations, whether by identifying those incarcerated for misdemeanors, near the end of their sentences, or with special risk (pregnant inmates, those over the age of 60, or with underlying medical conditions). But as exciting as these efforts are, this moment requires that we imagine something more than a temporary solution to this pandemic. Without a long-term plan for true decarceration, at a larger scale, and the necessary infrastructure to support both returning citizens and their communities, we will inevitably backslide and refill these institutions. We need visionary solutions crafted in collaboration with the communities most impacted.

A Crisis of Imagination

Our world has largely been designed by the powerful, the overwhelmingly white, wealthy, able-bodied, cisgender men who have, historically, decided what is “best” for the masses (while knowing very little about them). Without investing in fostering a new collective imagination, informed by diverse perspectives, we are doomed to perpetuate the same racial disparities.


> Read full article on SSIR.ORG