Jails and Prisons Will Be Ground Zero for COVID-19, If We Don’t Act Now

By Shani Saxon Mar 17, 2020

Any American inside of or living near a jail or prison faces even greater danger from the Coronavirus pandemic, according to an op-ed published March 16 in The New York Times. Dr. Amanda Klonsky, a scholar of education and mass incarceration, says that the new coronavirus spreads “at its quickest in closed environments,” which makes the prison population and those close to them extremely vulnerable. 

Klonsky writes:

The American criminal legal system holds almost 2.3 million people in prisons, jails, detention centers and psychiatric hospitals. And they do not live under quarantine: jails experience a daily influx of correctional staff, vendors, health care workers, educators and visitors — all of whom carry viral conditions at the prison back to their homes and communities and return the next day packing the germs from back home. How will we prevent incarcerated people and those who work in these institutions from becoming ill and spreading the virus?

…Jails are particularly frightening in this pandemic because of their massive turnover. While over 600,000 people enter prison gates annually, there are about 612,000 people in jail on any given day. More than half of the people in jail are only in there for two to three days. In some communities, the county jail or prison is a major employer. Jail staff members are also notoriously underpaid, may not have paid sick leave and are more likely to live in apartments, in close and frequent contact with neighbors. They return home daily to aging parents, pregnant partners or family members with chronic conditions.

As Colorlines reported on March 13, advocates have been calling on prison officials to release low-risk incarcerated people in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Klonsky makes a similar point in The Times, saying, aging incarcerated people “have a recidivism rate close to zero.” She encourages officials to “consider a one-time review of all elderly or infirm people in prisons, providing immediate medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible."

The situation inside prisons and jails across the country is extremely dire. Klonsky writes,

In America’s jails and prisons, people share bathrooms, laundry and eating areas. The toilets in their cells rarely have lids. The toilet tank doubles as the sink for hand washing, tooth brushing and other hygiene. People bunked in the same cell — often as many as four — share these toilets and sinks. Meanwhile, hand sanitizer is not allowed in most prisons because of its alcohol content. Air circulation is nearly always poor. Windows rarely open; soap may only be available if you can pay for it from the commissary.

The unsanitary, inhumane conditions inside jails and prisons “represent a threat to anyone with a jail in their community,” as Klonsky notes. She stresses that there is a jail in every county in the United States. “According to health experts, it is not a matter of if, but when, this virus breaks out in jails and prisons,” she writes. “People are constantly churning through jail and prison facilities, being ushered to court hearings, and then being released to their communities—nearly 11 million every year.”

People of color will be disproportionately affected by these health concerns, according to Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system, who is quoted in Klonsky’s piece. “We should recall that we have 5,000 jails and prisons full of people with high rates of health problems, and where health services are often inadequate and disconnected from the community systems directing the coronavirus response,” he says. “Coronavirus in these settings will dramatically increase the epidemic curve, not flatten it, and disproportionately for people of color.”

And while it’s true that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) should have come up with a plan to get ahead of this brewing catastrophe, Klonsky is encouraged by government leaders who stepped up to take necessary precautions. “The San Francisco district attorney, Chesa Boudin, together with the public defender, Manohar Raju, were the first to take proactive steps to release as many people as safely possible who are at heightened risk from coronavirus. Mr. Boudin directed his prosecutors not to oppose release motions for misdemeanor or nonviolent felony pretrial detainees where the person poses no threat to public safety,” she writes. 

Another crucial step in the right direction is for prison and jail staffers to receive training on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Klonsky says it’s also necessary for them to have access to diagnostic tests for the virus. And maybe most importantly, “incarcerated people who test positive for the coronavirus should be offered immediate access to free, high-quality health care,” she writes. 

Click here to read Klonsky’s full op-ed.