Four Steps to Halting COVID-19 Behind Bars: Report

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Illustration by EPG1961 via Flickr

Jails and prisons across the United States have been the most vulnerable “hot zones” since the onset of the pandemic thanks to a deadly combination of characteristics: overcrowding, high population turnover, and poor physical designs.

Statistics indicate incarcerated individuals are five times more likely to be infected than people in the wider community.

But new guidelines prepared by a panel of experts in corrections, correctional health, economics, epidemiology, law, medicine, public health, public policy, criminology, and sociology may offer some ways to mitigate the danger.

The work, sponsored by Arnold Ventures and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership ith the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, outlines four “necessary mitigation strategies” for the nation’s correctional system.

The recommendations call for diversion, immediate release for specific candidates, ithe implementation of proper reentry strategies and protocols, and improving data and preparedness.


A key priority for carceral facilities is reducing the incoming inmate population decisions to divert individuals from ever being placed behind bars.

Law enforcement already exercises its discretionary authorities, such as issuing a citation instead of an arrest, and judges and prosecutors can do the same, the panel said.

They can override pretrial detention, and eliminate the use of incarceration when  an individual is unable to pay fines and fees.

Prioritizing non-carceral penalties for misdemeanors will allow individuals to avoid the potentially health-threatening environment of a prison or jail during the pandemic.

Immediate Release

The panel also recommended using public health metrics to determine inmates or detainees who are most at risk from the coronavirus, and releasing those who are near the end of their sentence completion, or those who are at a low risk of recidivism.

But the report authors caution that the carceral system cannot simply wipe its hands clean of the former inmates. They have a duty to the communities and families impacted by those released to make sure there is total transparency as well as availability for post-release health care.

Reentry Strategies

“Correctional officials should avoid creating additional COVID-19-related health risks to families and communities by implementing COVID-19 testing upon release,” the authors suggested.

They added that facilities should offer safe quarantine housing for those who need to stay isolated for 14 days prior to returning to their families.

In order to keep communities safe, the recommendations go on to say parole and probation policies should be revisited, replacing in-person visits with non-contact ways of supervision.

Moreover, the authors write, state and federal governments “should remove barriers on eligibility to Medicaid to ensure access to health insurance and health care.”

Data and Preparedness

Finally, to stay transparent with communities and keep records up to date, the experts recommend that COVID-19 testing rates, hospitalizations, and mortality rates of everyone who interacts with correctional facilities should be reported daily, and standardized.

The full report, available for a free download through a “Guest Account,” is accessible here.

Andea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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