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A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at the Cook County jail complex on April 9 in Chicago. With nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 having been diagnosed among the inmates and employees, the jail is nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
5 Reasons Why

5 Reasons Why Reducing Corrections Populations is Good for Public Health and Public Safety

The conditions in prisons and jails leave people who live and work there more susceptible to contracting and spreading the coronavirus.

More than 2.3 million people live and work in jails and prisons across the U.S., and the conditions there leave them more susceptible to contracting and spreading the coronavirus. Here’s why reducing corrections populations is a smart move for public health, public safety, and our economy amid COVID-19.

#1 A large percentage of people in jails and prisons are older and/​or medically vulnerable — making them automatically higher risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19

#2 COVID-19 prevention and containment measures are impossible in jails and prisons due to their design, operation, and often overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. 

      • It is not possible to practice social distancing inside prisons and jails, where individuals sleep in overcrowded dormitories, share showers and bathrooms, and eat meals communally. 
      • Incarcerated people have limited access to soap and water, must pay for personal hygiene products, and are often prohibited from possessing sanitizing supplies such as bleach and hand sanitizer. 
      • Many of our nation’s jails and prisons are chronically understaffed and have poor living conditions, making it next to impossible for facilities to take the frequent cleaning and sanitization measures necessary to slow spread.

    #3 Jails and prisons are not equipped to provide the type of health care needed for acute cases of COVID-19

        • Options for medical isolation are extremely limited, particularly in overcrowded facilities, making it challenging for medical staff to take containment measures even for symptomatic individuals and those who test positive for coronavirus (let alone controlling spread among asymptomatic people).
        • Jails and prisons have modest medical treatment capacity and must routinely rely on transfers to local hospitals to treat more complex medical needs.
        • Many jails and prisons suffer medical staffing shortages under normal circumstances; correctional health services will become dangerously understaffed when health care workers fall ill.

      #4 When COVID-19 spreads in prisons and jails, it affects not only the incarcerated population, but also those who work in corrections facilities, their families, and the health systems in surrounding communities.

          • Jail populations rapidly churn from jail to community, and prisons incarcerate and move people from across each state; both increase the risk of spreading the virus widely. 
          • Close to half a million workers enter and exit correctional facilities each day, taking communicable diseases back and forth between facilities and communities.
          • Many prisons and jails are located in and staffed by small, rural communities with limited medical infrastructures that will be quickly overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people and correctional staff.

        #5 Many people in prisons and jails pose little to no risk to public safety if released, and their continued incarceration threatens public health. 

            • Many of the people at highest risk for serious illness or death related to COVID-19 (older populations and the medically-vulnerable) pose little to no risk to public safety if released to the community. Offending patterns across crime types fall sharply with age, and those who are at high risk for COVID-19 complications based on their age pose close to zero risk to public safety.
            • Thousands are incarcerated well past their parole eligibility date or are close to their scheduled release date. Thousands more are held past their scheduled release date each year due to poor coordination and slow administrative processes.
            • Nearly a quarter of people admitted to prisons each year (and an unknown number of people admitted to jails) are imprisoned for technical violations of their supervision, like missing appointments or failing drug tests — their incarceration is troubling at all times and dangerous as this pandemic spreads.
            • Two thirds of people in jails are there awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford bail — on top of criminalizing poverty, their presence in jails exacerbates the public health crisis.