The COVID-19 crisis has impacted our daily lives in dramatic fashion. Public and private agencies have had to alter their ways of doing business to protect themselves and others against this pandemic. Prisons and jails are no exception.
According to the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, confirmed cases of the virus are proliferating in our State and Federal prisons. As of April 24, 2020 there were 6,435 confirmed cases and 23 deaths among correctional staff, and 12,840 confirmed cases and 172 deaths among inmates. And this doesn’t even account for cases and deaths in local jails.
This high prevalence of COVID-19 cases should come as no surprise given the crowded conditions in our prisons and jails. Federal prisons, for example, exceed their rated capacities by 12-19 percent. In Kentucky jails, inmates are sleeping on floor mats due to lack of bed space. In State prisons, the small two-person cells, bunk rooms, and crowded common areas make social distancing nearly impossible. Pair that with a high proportion of inmates having complex medical needs and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Jails and prisons across the country are taking measures to alleviate crowding and limit the spread of COVID-19. Many jurisdictions are trying to reduce jail admissions by increasing the use of citations, summons, and no or low bonds. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, agencies in 33 states have reported the release of inmates that meet certain criterion. Those selected for release are older inmates or those with underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. Other inmates selected for release have been incarcerated for non-violent offenses or probation and parole violations, and are approaching the end of their sentences. Although there is support for releasing these lower risk inmates, there is concern about what circumstances they will face upon return to the community. In the best of times, parolees face barriers to reintegration; they struggle with finding jobs, appropriate housing and medical care, leaving one to question how they will protect themselves from COVID-19 and stay crime free.
Other measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 are being taken within correctional facilities. Staff are subject to temperature and symptom screening when they report to work and are required to wear masks throughout their shifts. All but three states have eliminated or lowered the cost of medical co-pays for inmates to encourage symptom reporting. And face-to-face visitation has been suspended. To encourage contact with the outside, prisons and jails are reducing the cost of phone and video calls. This is important given that research shows that sustained meaningful contact with family and friends is linked to better behavior in prison and reduced recidivism upon release.
These decisions, especially decisions about who to release, must always balance the goal of public safety with the health needs of staff and inmates. It is too early to tell if these measures are making a positive difference. They do, however, seem to reflect a humane attempt to protect staff and inmate health and control the spread of COVID-19 within correctional institutions.