Reducing COVID-19 Behind Bars

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Criminal justice experts warn that more needs to be done to mitigate coronavirus in U.S. jails and prisons.

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Researchers project that COVID-19 could kill 100,000 more people than currently predicted in the United States if steps are not taken to reduce jail and prison populations.

Overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care make it difficult to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in correctional settings. Even though local and federal governments have taken certain steps to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons, criminal justice experts warn that these steps are not enough.

According to a new report produced by the American Civil Liberties Union and researchers from three major universities, data demonstrate a need to reduce jail populations “dramatically and immediately” to save lives. Fifteen of the largest coronavirus outbreak clusters in the United States have been in jails and prisons.

Jails, which operate at the local level, house individuals short term for less serious crimes, but individuals also cycle through jails more frequently. In contrast, prisons, which operate at the federal or state level, house individuals long term for more serious crimes.

Since March, more than 343,008 people in prison have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 2,144 of these individuals have died. One study found that a person in prison is 5.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 and three times more likely to die from the virus than a person in the general non-prison population.

The spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities also threatens nearby communities, especially as COVID-19 cases rise. The threat is particularly present near jails where people have shorter and more frequent stays, potentially exposing themselves and others upon release.

Many federal and state government officials recognize the need to slow the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

Then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memo in March directing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement for eligible individuals instead of prison. In response, the Bureau of Prisons reported that it had “significantly increased” the use of home confinement. Barr also directed federal prosecutors to consider COVID-19 medical risks when making bail decisions.

Furthermore, the Bureau of Prisons and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on how correctional facilities should modify operations during the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC guidance includes a variety of recommendations, such as increasing data transparency, reviewing sick leave policies for personnel, and supplying protective equipment and cleaning supplies to people who are incarcerated.

State officials have also taken steps aiming to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations. In March, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that temporarily halted all admissions to state prisons for 30 days. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also released about 3,500 individuals who were within two months of completing their sentence to community supervision. Similarly, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued an executive order directing the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to establish a home confinement program to release medically vulnerable individuals who are near the end of their sentence from state prisons.

Because of these federal and state efforts, incarcerated populations declined in some localities. One study estimated that the jail population nationwide declined by 20 percent. Furthermore, greater than 100,000 people were released from state and federal prisons, an 8 percent decrease compared to a 2.2 percent decrease in 2019.

Criminal justice experts, however, argue that the decrease in the nation’s jail and prison population is temporary and will also not be large enough to halt the spread of COVID-19. Experts posit that the reduction is a result of temporarily slowing court processes, facility admissions, and transfers between jails and prisons.

Experts also find that efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities have been quite limited. For instance, despite directives to release medically vulnerable individuals from federal prisons, 98 percent of the petitions filed for release were denied or ignored. In California, all 3,500 individuals released to home confinement were already scheduled for release before the pandemic, tempering the actual impact of the governor’s COVID-19 release order. In Pennsylvania, corrections administrators expected the release of at least 1,500 medically vulnerable people from prison, but the program released fewer than 160 people to home confinement.

Criminal justice experts and advocates make several recommendations to reduce the spread of coronavirus in correctional settings.

Criminal justice administrators can release more individuals on home confinement by speeding up the process, guaranteeing release for individuals with terminal illness, and standardizing the list of medical conditions that put individuals most at risk of serious harm from COVID-19.

Administrators and policymakers should also expand eligibility for release programs by re-examining regulations that categorically disqualify people based on the type or number of prior offenses. For instance, some states have habitual offender laws that automatically disqualify people for home confinement if they have been previously convicted of a set number of crimes. Researchers urge administrators to take a more holistic approach, only denying eligibility when there are genuine public safety concerns.

State regulators, elected officials, and prosecutors can also reduce the incarcerated population by voiding outstanding arrest warrants for non-dangerous crimes, such as failure to appear in court and minor violations of probation and parole. Judges and prosecutors, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggest, should also consider the risk of COVID-19 spread when they make bail and sentencing decisions, especially for non-violent crimes.

To protect individuals who remain incarcerated, experts recommend widespread testing, provision of personal protective equipment such as masks, improvement of health care services, and prioritization of vaccine distribution for incarcerated people.