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Prisons And Jails Could Be Hotbeds For Coronavirus Outbreaks. Let’s Fix That


While one can hope that most people will try their best to comply with new habits such as handwashing and social distancing to stop the spread of Covid-19, thousands of people simply can’t— because they’re incarcerated.

The United States incarcerates more than 2 million people between its jails and prisons on any given day, and 200,000 more flow in and out of jails every single week. Given the potential severity of the coronavirus, paired with the lack of good hygiene and social distancing in carceral facilities across the country, it’s essential that federal and state governments work to keep people out of jail, and take measures to protect vulnerable incarcerated populations.

One option is to release them into home confinement. No, this isn’t some leftist ploy to release a massive wave of dangerous criminals. Home confinement release is something President Trump’s administration actually suggested for federal prisons on March 26 in a memorandum written by Attorney General William Barr. States should do the same for their prisons, and counties for their jails.

For those who stay incarcerated, the least the government can do is provide free soap and virus testing. If they don’t, and continue to operate as normal, contracting the virus and death is all but inevitable for many people stuck inside state detention. It’s already starting to happen.

People Convicted of Crimes Are Dying of Coronavirus

Patrick Jones, a 49-year-old man incarcerated in Oakdale Federal Correctional Institute, was one of the first people in prison to die from coronavirus. He was trying to get released under the First Step Act, but coronavirus took that possibility away.

As of April 9, four others incarcerated at Oakdale have died from the virus. Now, 100 are quarantined, and at least 28 other Oakdale inmates and 24 staff members have tested positive.

Anthony Cheek, who was incarcerated at Lee State Prison, in Georgia died on March 27 from COVID-19. Ronald Rice and an unnamed Illinois man imprisoned at Stateville Correctional Center died from the virus. Now, 56 other incarcerated men and 26 staff members from the Illinois prison have tested positive. The stories go on and on.

Prison Is a Perfect Environment for a Outbreak

Prisons and jails are the perfect breeding ground for contagious illnesses. People in jails and prisons by definition live in close proximity with one another, sharing cells with up to four other people in a small room, and in many cases are housed in open dorms with scores of other inmates.

Nearly every jail and prison operates with communal activities such as daily meals, served with everyone jammed into group seating. This could mean hundreds of people stuffed into one room waiting in a line that often snakes around the tables, followed by eating and mingling next to one another three times a day. The recommended six-foot social distancing boundary is nearly impossible to follow in this environment.

The only way around communal eating is to lock an entire facility down and serve inmates food in their cells. However this effectively places entire prison populations into solitary confinement, and it’s not a workable solution in the long term — or in the short term for some facilities who simply don’t have the space to quarantine all individuals in solitary.

Atop that concern, around 12 percent of the nation’s incarcerated populations are over the age of 55. This puts nearly 200,000 incarcerated people in the high-risk category for COVID-19 in a dire situation. And this older cohort is one of the least likely to commit another crime, as recidivism is well known to plummet as age increases, while the cost of care skyrockets.

State and Local Facilities Have Higher Churn

In response to the outbreak in the Louisiana prison, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a directive to put all 122 federal prisons on lockdown. This means no visitors, and each incarcerated person must be quarantined with no movement for at least 14 days. After this isolation period, federal prisons must screen each person for COVID-19.

But this does not apply to state prisons or local jails, where a vast majority of the country’s incarcerated population remains, locked in more than 1,700 state prisons and county jails.

Unlike prison, jails operate with a revolving door. The Marshall Project found that morethan 200,000 people are booked into jails on a weekly basis, and just as many exit jail every week. Seventy percent of local jails are filled with people not yet convicted of a crime — they’re stuck there on bail. Thus if an outbreak does occur within a jail’s walls, it could very likely spread into the community as a result of the constant flow of arrests and releases.

So one way to lessen the likelihood and impact of jail COVID-19 outbreaks is for police, prosecutors, judges, and parole boards to work together to keep people out of jail, and release individuals who are at high risk for contracting the illness if they are a low flight or safety risk. For this to become a reality, parole boards would have to process cases more rapidly. There is no reason video-conferencing can’t be used for this.

Some are concerned about violent felons being let out on the streets because their charge was reduced to “nonviolent” when they took a plea deal, but this is considered when parole board members make release decisions.

Give Prisoners Soap, For Pete’s Sake

Soap should probably always be free to those who are incarcerated, but especially now. Handwashing and proper sanitization of a person’s living area is a crucial element of disease mitigation.

Shockingly, many incarceration facilities don’t freely provide soap or sanitization products to those in jail and prison. To see a medical professional, they must pay a fee, which is unsustainable in the wake of a global pandemic, and often comes out to a day or two of pay.

Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for the Atlantic, reported that in Ohio, for example, prisoners must buy their own soap from the commissary, and facilities will provide two bars per month for those who are indigent. What happens when a person runs out of money or uses up his allotted soap rations?

Some facilities provide hygiene kits for indigent inmates once a week, but at most those include a tiny hotel-sized bar of soap that an inmate is forced to stretch across an entire week, tough to do especially since part of it will be needed for laundry detergent.

The advocacy organization Reform Alliance established a comprehensive plan on how to move forward in state and local facilities. The plan outlines a number of policies using this acronym:

  • Suspend jail for technical violations, and probation office visits, and payment of fines.
  • Adopt smart alternatives to incarceration and contact visitation
  • Free medical visits and treatment, hand sanitizer, soap, and protective gear
  • Extra precautions for correctional officers and staff
  • Release elderly and vulnerable to home confinement

As the panic of coronavirus continues to consume the daily lives of Americans, it’s critical not to forget those who are locked up and simply can’t follow national safety guidelines in hygiene and distancing. Incarcerated men and women, and jail and prison staff, are a vulnerable population who could face a high fatality rate unless governments take action now.