The blog of the Urban Institute
March 20, 2020

How Should Prisons and Jails Prepare for COVID-19?

Prisons and jails are confronted with unique challenges as they work to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 for incarcerated people and correctional staff.

In addition to the obvious problem of housing so many in close quarters, prison and jail leadership must strike a balance between maintaining order and safety while providing the best possible care to and upholding the basic human rights of incarcerated people.

Jails and prisons are dangerous places during outbreaks

In the best of times, prisons and jails face challenges providing preventative care, adequate testing, and complete treatment. A highly transmittable disease like COVID-19 presents a significant threat to the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States and to the 415,000 correctional officers that work at these facilities.

Correctional environments have an increased risk of infection and transmission because of overcrowding, limited access to diagnosis and treatment, limited supplies of soap and other cleaning supplies, and prolonged close contact in small, indoor, and often poorly ventilated spaces.

Further, incarcerated populations come disproportionately from disadvantaged groups with limited access to health care and prevention, so they may enter jail or prison with compromised health. Prisons and jails have a greater share of people with underlying health conditions than the general population, putting many at higher risk of COVID-19 complications and death.

Steps prisons and jails are taking to minimize risk

Prisons and jails have a legal responsibility to care for the people in their custody, including the responsibility to meet health needs.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the country’s 122 prisons, released official guidance last week, mandating the suspension of social and legal visits for 30 days, limiting staff travel, and implementing additional screening for disease.

At the state level, and even at individual facility level, additional precautions are being taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Below are some strategies currently in the works, as well as considerations and implications for policymakers and correctional leadership in local jurisdictions to keep in mind when developing plans.

1. Sending people who do not pose a threat to public safety home

Some jurisdictions have taken steps to reduce their jail and prison populations by releasing men and women with 90 or fewer days remaining on their sentences, and Ohio courts ordered the release of people in county jails with heightened risk for COVID-19 complications. Advocates are urging other agencies across the US to take similar steps and pay special attention to the elderly in custody.

Although this is an important step, those who are sent home must receive adequate transition and reentry support, including information about and access to medical care when they return to the community.

2. Limiting the number of newly incarcerated people coming into the facility

Last week, the San Francisco district attorney directed prosecutors not to oppose pretrial release for people charged with misdemeanors or drug-related felonies who do not pose a safety threat.

Similarly, New Jersey began issuing summons instead of arrest warrants for some cases to limit the number of people entering courts or jails. The state also suspended jury trials and shifted other court events to remote meetings.

As of this week, courts in Maine vacated over 12,000 warrants for minor offenses and made provisions to handle some court matters over video or phone conferencing.

3. Limiting the number of visitors entering the facility

Many prisons and jails have canceled all external meetings and visitation for at least 14 days, which includes not just family visitation but also bans on volunteers.

Volunteers are often responsible for much of the educational programming offered to incarcerated people. With that suspended, incarcerated people will be faced with more unstructured, idle time. Facilities will be challenged to provide alternative activities, like increased recreational or library time.

Family visitation is critical to well-being behind bars, and prisons and jails must supplement in-person visitation with video chatting and phone calls for the duration of facility closures. States should maximize the use of technology during this time and take steps to provide additional communication resources to jails and prisons. 

In Shelby County, Tennessee, officials waived fees for phone calls and video chats in jails and prisons. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is allowing five free video calls, and the Florida Department of Corrections is providing one free video call, two free 15-minute phone calls, and half-priced video calls to incarcerated people during the facility closure.  

4. Balancing security concerns with providing necessary support to keep populations safe

This crisis puts stress on prisons and jails already operating with overstretched staff and resources and limited by regulations to preserve safety and order. Department of corrections leadership faces challenges balancing security concerns with providing necessary support and care.

Official monitors are facing limited access to facilities, raising questions around facility transparency, accountability, and oversight. With increased attention on preventing spread of the virus, other conditions or populations with special needs may be neglected, making oversight more important than ever—but logistically difficult to implement.

People confined in jails and prisons are some of the most vulnerable members of society, confined in closed spaces within systems of total control where liberty and agency are severely restricted. Incarcerated men and women are entirely dependent on staff to meet their health needs and typically have more health concerns than other citizens.

These systems have a duty to the people housed and working within their walls to keep them safe and mitigate health threats, but they need to consider the implications when enacting new policies to reduce risk. 

Sgt. Michael Mora of the La Junta Sheriff's Office looking in the cells in the county jail. There are 6 cells, 5 of which hold 6 inmates. They are full most of the time and the prisoners are on 24-hour lockdown because there isn't anywhere for them to go and be under guard and secure. April 27, 2016 in La Junta, CO. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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