A new COVID-19 surge has hit the United States and once again, the 2.1 million Americans held in prisons and jails are at imminent risk of contracting and dying of the virus.
Though new vaccines on the horizon appear promising, policymakers need to redouble their efforts to reduce incarcerated populations and help protect the vulnerable if we are to truly get this virus under control.
President-elect Joe Biden can lead the way when it comes to reducing the number of vulnerable people incarcerated in federal prisons. His actions can serve as a model for state governors who have been slow to act in the face of a growing public health catastrophe.
According to the COVID Behind Bars project, nearly 200,000 incarcerated persons, plus about 42,000 prison and jail staff, have contracted COVID-19. To date, over 1,300 people behind bars have died. However, these numbers are based on about 980,000 tests out of a jail and prison population of a combined 2.1 million.
This means that at most, less than half of incarcerated people have been tested for COVID-19.
There are frequent reports of terminally ill incarcerated people who are presumed positive for COVID-19 being released to die at home, which means they won’t be counted as prison deaths. Additionally, a number of states and localities continue to refuse to release testing or mortality numbers.
So, the full picture of the pandemic in prisons and jails remains unclear.
But despite the holes in the data, it is clear that COVID-19 has devastated American correctional facilities. Nationally, case rates among people behind bars are four times higher than the general population death rates.
A study conducted in response to an order from Massachusetts’ highest court found that the positivity rate among the state’s incarcerated population is almost three times that of the state’s general population and five times that of the U.S. general population.
In South Dakota, one-third of the people behind bars in the state have active COVID-19 cases. In California, a 2,500 person outbreak in the San Quentin prison has claimed 29 lives. A court has now ordered the state to reduce San Quentin’s population by half.
Across the nation, jails and prisons have been some of the largest hotspots for COVID-19 in the country. An analysis of one unidentified large urban jail found that each infected person spread the virus to 8.44 other people at the beginning of the outbreak.
“To put that in perspective,” the study authors said, “the virus spread 3.6 times faster in this jail than it did aboard the Princess Diamond [cruise ship] in February and over four times faster than in Wuhan.”
No matter what crimes they committed, the 2.1 million Americans held in prisons and jails are human beings who deserve our attention.
If you aren’t convinced by the humanitarian argument, consider this: despite widespread suspension of visitation during the coronavirus crisis, prisons remain porous places, with staff and contractors cycling in and out every day. Ohio media have reported that prison outbreaks seeped through the prison gates to the local community, where sparsely populated rural counties with prisons now have an infection rate as high as Cleveland or Columbus.
In Illinois, one of every six COVID-19 cases in Chicago have been linked to the Cook County jail, where a major outbreak has killed seven people incarcerated there and at least one staff member.
The completely predictable spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails also raises deeper questions about the persistence of America’s addiction to incarceration. In an age where “public health” has taken on new importance, it is worth asking whether “public safety” is served by squeezing every possible minute of incarceration out of every person serving time, when alternatives such as home confinement and electronic monitoring are available.
The defenders of our current incarceration policies prefer to sidestep these issues, since they call into question whether it’s really true that every prison sentence is justified or that the length of every sentence is optimal.
Some policymakers seem to believe that the incarceration state must be permitted to grind on uninterrupted, even if it puts our communities at direct risk of disease.
Mass incarceration has now become a direct threat to the public health, as vectors of community spread. Public health imperatives suggest we should be working to mitigate that danger by reducing prison and jail populations—not insisting that all is well and that nothing in our criminal justice system needs to change.
Erin Haney is the National Policy Director at REFORM Alliance. Prior to joining REFORM, Haney served for a decade as a deputy public defender in San Francisco and a death penalty attorney in California.
Arthur Rizer is the director of criminal justice and civil liberties police at the R Street Institute. Rizer is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at Antonin Scalia Law School—George Mason University and a former police officer and federal prosecutor.