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Where needed to adhere to public health guidelines and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, authorities should use their discretion to minimize incarceration in prisons and jails — and facilitate testing, quarantine, social supports, and individualized reentry plans for those released, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report recommends corrections officials and public health authorities work together to determine the optimal population for jails and prisons to adhere to public health guidelines, considering characteristics that facilitate viral transmission, such as overcrowding, population turnover, health care capacity, and the overall health of individuals living in the facility.

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety says as of August 2020, COVID-19 case rates among incarcerated people were nearly five times higher than in the general population, and three times higher among correctional staff. Jails and prisons in the U.S. are often overcrowded, dense, poorly ventilated, and disconnected from public health systems, making COVID-19 prevention among incarcerated people and staff exceedingly difficult.

Decarceration — reducing the population of prisons and jails by releasing and diverting people away from incarceration as they enter the criminal justice system — can lower the risk of infection for older and other high-risk incarcerated persons, and allow correctional facilities to more easily implement other COVID-19 prevention strategies such as physical distancing. The report says that while some jurisdictions have taken steps to decarcerate since the onset of the pandemic, these efforts have so far been insufficient to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.

The report recommends correctional officials identify candidates for release in a fair and equitable manner. Individuals who are medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence, or who present a low risk of committing serious crime will likely be suitable candidates. Research on recidivism suggests that decarceration can be done with minimal risk to public safety. The report points to data from New York City and California that show large reductions in prison populations were followed by crime rates that either fell or remained at low levels. Research also shows that most returns to a correctional facility are driven by technical violations of parole or release, rather than new crimes.

Correctional facilities in their current state are simply unable to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, and decarceration is an important tool for addressing that risk,” said Emily Wang, associate professor and director of the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice in the Yale School of Medicine, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. Our report lays out a path to protect the lives of incarcerated people, their families, and communities.”

Successful decarceration doesn’t stop at the prison gates — especially during a pandemic. It should be a humane process that includes planning for housing, income, and health care after release,” added committee co-chair Bruce Western, Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice and co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. Public officials who are serious about addressing the COVID-19 crisis in the penal system need a two-pronged strategy: reduce incarceration and support people’s health and safety once they get home.”

Mechanisms for Decarceration

The report says that to the extent that incarceration increases the risk of spreading COVID-19, federal, state, and local authorities should minimize incarceration by:

  • directing law enforcement to issue citations in lieu of making arrests.
  • judges and prosecutors releasing defendants on their own recognizance as a default option, rather than pretrial detention, unless strong evidence shows it would be at odds with public safety or court appearances.
  • legislatures, prosecutors, and courts eliminating incarceration for a failure to pay fines and fees. Misdemeanors, probation and parole violations, and other less serious conduct should be addressed with penalties that do not include incarceration.
  • eliminating or reducing bail.
  • revising compassionate release policies to account for consideration of an incarcerated person’s medical condition, age, impairment, or family circumstances.
  • examining parole and probation policies and procedures to limit or eliminate returning to incarceration for technical violations.

Reentry and Safe Return to Communities

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, public officials should implement testing prior to release and facilitate quarantining as necessary. Officials should take steps to provide newly released individuals with a safe place in the community to quarantine for 14 days when needed, prior to returning to their families. Courts and parole authorities should also take action to reduce the impact of supervision on the spread of COVID-19, such as by replacing in-person visits and removing work requirements.

The report says reentry planning and social supports in the weeks following release — including health care, housing, and income support — are important complements to any decarceration strategy. These supports can mitigate COVID-19 and lower the risk of recidivism. For example, improving a formerly incarcerated individual’s access to health care can reduce their long-term risk for drug and alcohol misuse and in turn their risk of recidivism, and also improve their ability to access COVID-19 testing if needed.

Corrections officials working with public and community-based programs should develop individualized reentry plans that offer a bundle of social services to address individual and family needs. Incarcerated individuals should be eligible and approved for such services at least 30 days prior to release: 

  • Housing — Federal, state, and local authorities should identify resources to provide housing to incarcerated individuals who require it for safe discharge, and should explore opportunities to financially support families who provide housing to incarcerated individuals upon release.
  • Income — Officials should identify barriers to accessing public benefits and employment, and support benefit eligibility for income and basic needs supports, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income. 
  • Health Care — Community health systems should facilitate health care access for people just released from correctional systems by removing requirements for government identification at the first visit and prioritizing first appointments immediately prior to release. States should remove barriers to eligibility for Medicaid to ensure current and formerly incarcerated people have access to COVID-19 testing, services, and care. 

The study — undertaken by the Committee on the Best Practices for Implementing Decarceration as a Strategy to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19 in Correctional Facilities — was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Arnold Ventures. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. 


Megan Lowry, Media Officer
Office of News and Public Information
2023342138; e‑mail news@​nas.​edu