According to data from the New York Times, 10 of the top 10 infection clusters in the United States are linked to correctional facilities. Of the top 100 clusters, 87 are tied to detention centers. It is morbidly unsurprising that the virus is ravaging jails and prisons, where cramped quarters make social distancing impossible. Prisons are increasingly relying on lockdowns to restrict movement, leading to a staggering jump in the number of people in isolation or solitary confinement. Half of all states are not requiring correctional staff to wear masks. Matters are made worse by insufficient sanitation materials, and, all too often, a culture of cruelty and disregard for the well-being of incarcerated people.
Two responses are essential. Correctional facilities are in desperate need of more of the basics: testing, personal protective equipment and robust sanitation protocols.
But the number of people in prisons also must be reduced. That is the only meaningful way to slow the spread of the virus, protect medically vulnerable incarcerated people and reduce the threat of virus spread to nearby communities.
The progress on this front has occurred especially in jails, where people are typically held before trial or while serving short sentences. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, local governments moved quickly at the start of the pandemic, leading to a median drop of more than 30 percent in jail populations between March and May. They achieved this through a mix of strategies, including setting bail to zero, declining to charge people for minor offenses and releasing those near the end of short sentences.
Overall, state and federal prisons have made much less progress, though there are some encouraging exceptions. California has released thousands of people who were nearing the end of their sentences for nonviolent offenses. New Jersey is considering a bill that would reduce prison sentences and could lead to the release of 20 percent of the state’s incarcerated population. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) approved the early release of 57 medically vulnerable people.
Unfortunately, infections behind bars are rising as decarceration trends in jails are slowing. States should use all available tools to reduce jail and prison density. Even before the pandemic, the United States was shockingly out of sync with the rest of the world in the share of its population behind bars. No one is advocating the release of people who would endanger the community, but a large share of the inmate population does not meet that description. Governors and state legislatures should accelerate the release — temporary or otherwise — of as many incarcerated people as possible, especially those who are medically at risk. The faster prison and jail populations are reduced, the less dangerous they become for those left behind and for the surrounding communities.