Jails and prisons have become centers of the coronavirus, as they have been during every outbreak before it. Incarcerated people have been denied tests and medical care, with those exhibiting symptoms simply thrown into solitary confinement. Prison libraries and educational programs have shut down, but social distancing remains impossible when prisoners live in shared cells and eat in dining halls, four or five to a table. More than 46,000 imprisoned people in the United States have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and nearly 550 have died.

But jails are even more deadly transmitters of the virus than prisons, because they are embedded in local communities. Unlike state and federal prisons, jails are run by counties. Each year, almost 11 million people spend time in U.S. jails — most of them before being convicted of crimes — and during this time, they interact closely with police officers, nurses, custody officers and, of course, other incarcerated people. The covid-19 pandemic has intensified calls for “decarceration” — a push to reduce the number of people under punitive control, in jails and prisons or under electronic monitoring. Though municipalities have met the latest pandemic with modest reforms, the history of jails reveals that saving lives will require permanently reducing the number of people behind bars.

Long before covid-19 ravaged incarcerated populations and local communities, government officials turned jails into deadly places by gutting welfare programs and expanding incarceration — policy decisions that have brutalized communities of color in particular. A new report from the University of Michigan’s Documenting Criminalization and Confinement project, “We Live 24/7 in Hell,” reveals that by the early 1970s, prisoners in Detroit’s Wayne County Jail endured systematic abuse and medical neglect — with lethal consequences.

During this time, the vast majority of incarcerated people — around 75 percent — were awaiting trial and unable to afford bail. People were assaulted, denied basic medical care, and soap and toothpaste, and were fed vermin-infested food. Deputies subjected one 20-year-old mentally ill woman to prolonged isolation, checking on her only to provide food and to “bathe” her with disinfectant spray. For four months, she lay in a cell covered in trash and feces.

In these conditions, mental illness became an epidemic. Thirteen people attempted suicide in just one six-week period. In 1974, David Fregin attempted suicide on his very first day in jail, trying to hang himself with a bedsheet. It would take three more attempts before Fregin was allowed to see a psychiatrist, who shockingly deemed him “not acutely suicidal.” Within weeks of this diagnosis, Fregin died by suicide Nov. 12, 1974.

Prisoners in Wayne County brought a class-action lawsuit against the jail, thereby documenting its brutal conditions and demonstrating their unwillingness to suffer in silence. One plaintiff, Nora Ware, experienced physical abuse as a pregnant woman after being arrested and jailed for writing a bad check. She had suffered a shotgun blast to her arms, back and belly. Inside the jail, she became so desperate for help that she set a fire in her cell to get the deputies’ attention. Instead of taking her to get treatment, deputies threw her in solitary confinement without a mattress, blanket or running water. Ware suffered a miscarriage shortly after, alone in “the hole,” as she cried out for help.

Each of these cases reveals how governments came to rely on incarceration to solve economic and public health problems. People forced to the margins of society have always made up the majority of Americans in jail. But policy decisions since the late 1960s have increased the economic insecurity of millions of Americans. According to Carolyn Sufrin, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: “Governments rolled back social programs that labor unions, welfare rights organizations, and racial justice activists won during the New Deal, War on Poverty and Civil Rights eras.” Programs that already were inadequate and rife with racist and sexist exclusions were cut to the bone. Health care and housing became more expensive, while the number of people incarcerated for crimes such as drug use or driving with a suspended license exploded.

What little funding remained for cities was tied to policing. Instead of diverting people away from jail with education and job training programs, young men in the inner city encountered the criminal justice system earlier in life. Politicians in both parties blamed black and brown families’ “pathological culture,” concluding that investing in these communities would only worsen urban “dependency.” President Ronald Reagan infamously railed against “welfare queens,” a racist and sexist myth he had perfected as California’s law-and-order governor from 1967 to 1975.

That jails were filled with people experiencing economic and health crises, abandoned by local and state governments, was no secret. The Detroit Free Press published prisoner accounts, in addition to covering the prisoners’ class-action lawsuit. In 1968, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a liberal reform organization, released a damning investigation of the Wayne County Jail. Most of those in the jail should not have been there, the researchers argued, and their report recommended that 77 percent could be released immediately.

In response, politicians including Sheriff Roman Gribbs and Gov. William Milliken promised to improve health care in the jail. Prisoners won their lawsuit in 1971, with the court recognizing that jail conditions represented “cruel and unusual punishment.” But police departments continued the practices that had produced lethal conditions in the first place: arresting people for drug or poverty-related crimes for which they could not afford bail. Conditions in the jail worsened rapidly.

The crowded, pathogenic conditions in today’s jails are not an accident — they’re a policy choice. They are what happens when governments rely on incarceration to solve economic and public health problems, including poverty and addiction. By the time Bill Clinton ran for president on a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” the push to expand incarceration and the assault on welfare programs had fused into a single bipartisan agenda. In addition to cutting in half the number of families receiving aid, Clinton made his legacy through one of the most devastating crime control bills in history.

Nowhere is this history of disinvestment felt more acutely than in Detroit. “After years of unemployment, foreclosed homes, water shut-offs, shuttered schools, health clinic closures and jail expansion,” writes Amanda Alexander, the founder of the Detroit Justice Center, “many in Detroit’s Black majority have no illusions that our current system is doing anything but abandoning them to die.”

Honoring the memories of Nora Ware, David Fregin and, more recently, the hundreds who have died of coronavirus behind bars requires recognizing that jails reflect urgent community needs that aren’t being met by governments. Eleven million people spend time in jail each year, and 28 million Americans go without health insurance. “Covid-19 is an incredible catalyst,” Sufrin hopes. “We have an opportunity to show that we as a society do not need to rely on prisons and jails as much as we do.” The task now is to turn a public health crisis into a public safety solution.