“A prison is now a public health threat,” said Armen Henderson, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami. Criminal justice reform advocates have called for massive reductions in incarceration because of the pandemic. They argue that measures such as distributing masks or allowing access to hand sanitizer do little to stop the spread of the virus in facilities where people live so close together, the Washington Post reports. More than 173,000 inmates nationwide have contracted the coronavirus and almost 1,300 have died, says the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. At least 37,000 corrections workers have tested positive and 78 have died. In at least 39 states and Washington, D.C., governors, local officials or sheriff’s departments have taken steps to reduce prison and jail populations since the beginning of the pandemic. Measures varied widely, from releasing some nonviolent inmates or those who are medically vulnerable to accepting only the most-violent offenders.
Between March and May, prison populations dropped an average of eight percent and jail populations decreased 30 percent. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed more than 50 cases aimed at freeing people from prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities, with limited success largely because a 1996 law limits inmates’ ability to sue. Now, advocates say those gains are being eroded, leading to fears about additional outbreaks and mounting death tolls. Some courts or governments are intervening to reduce prison and jail populations. New Jersey freed 2,200 inmates, but the state is an outlier. About half the reduction in jail population has been erased since May. Spikes have been found in places that have conducted mass testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in August showing that mass testing in 16 U.S. prisons and jails found a 12-fold increase over the number of cases identified through symptoms alone.