The population of rural jails is under grave risk from COVID-19, says a study released Friday.
“Rural jails are frequently located in counties that lack hospital capacity to handle the coronavirus pandemic,” said The Justice Collaborative study, “Protecting Rural Jails From Coronavirus.”
While the jail population has exploded in rural America, medical facilities lag far behind, the study added.
“Our analysis shows that the percentage of people being held in jails—12 percent nationally, and over a third in some states—are housed in counties without any ICU beds,” according to the study.
“This could have disastrous consequences should an outbreak occur in a jail located in a rural community without access to critical care resources.”
In 2019, per capita rural jail incarceration rates were more than double those of urban jails. The Vera Institute of Justice has reported that from 1970 to 2013, rural jail populations grew by 400 percent, “a time period in which crime fell precipitously.”
“In rural areas, in particular, many pretrial detainees are being held for low-level crimes and remain incarcerated only because they are too poor to make bail,” said the study.
Some of these jails exist in “legal deserts” where lawyers are very hard to find.
“Even before the pandemic, overuse of pretrial detention caused significant harm,” said the study. “In normal times, people held pretrial–largely because they cannot afford cash bail–risk losing housing, employment, and benefits. Now, they are now at high risk for exposure to coronavirus.”
The smaller sizes of rural jails creates medical “deserts” as well, the study said.
“Larger, urban jails are more likely to have (and afford) full-time and medical care providers with advanced credentials; smaller, rural jails are more likely to have only part-time nursing staff, supervised remotely.
“Big metropolitan jails — where people are still getting sick and dying — may have full medical suites, stocked with equipment; small country jails will not. ”
Many of these counties are without a hospital altogether, “as rural hospital closures have accelerated in the past decade. As a result, the limited critical care resources that exist in rural areas will be in exceedingly short supply when disease outbreaks occur.”
The study said that the rural regions “suffering the greatest lack of health care resources tend to be disproportionately home to people of color.”
“The coronavirus pandemic will disproportionately impact rural communities of color, in the same way it appears to be impacting urban communities of color.”
Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that about a third of rural jails hold between 10 and 99 people, whereas jails in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles hold thousands.
The study called on governors, judges, prosecutors and law enforcement to “dramatically” lower jail populations and reduce new jail admissions “in order to save the lives of detainees, jail staff, and entire communities.”
Most media attention has gone to the crisis in crowded city jails such as the Rikers complex in New York City.
According to the Justice Collaborative, more than 60 percent of all people held in jails across the country are being detained pretrial; the proportion is even higher in rural areas.
In some rural communities, measures are already being taken.
In East Texas, counties have entered into agreements among themselves to stop transfers and new bookings to keep jail populations low. Jails in rural Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee have also started reducing jail populations pursuant to judges’ orders.
“Most of their releases are of people being held pretrial as well as people being held for technical violations of parole or probation.”
Unless jail populations are decreased further, the study warned, the health crisis will “likely overwhelm already stretched-thin healthcare resources, which will impact the entire community and impede care for all.”
The full report can be downloaded here.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.