Rising Jail Admissions Called New COVID-19 Threat

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Photo by James Bradley, via Flickr

An upsurge in admissions to county jails across the U.S. threatens to make them a new source of COVID-19 infections to prisoners, staff and the communities where they are located, warns the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

Citing figures showing that the number of people held in 514 jails has increased over the past four months, despite an initial decline, the PPI charged that authorities in many jurisdictions who implemented counter-pandemic measures had returned to “business as usual”

In a recent policy paper, the nonprofit research and advocacy group also noted that although state prison populations have declined, the reductions have not been significant enough to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and increased health care requirements,” wrote PPI analyst Emily Widra, the author of the policy brief.

In one example, she noted that despite a 20 percent reduction in California’s state prison population since January, the number of “large” COVID-19 outbreaks is still high.

But she said the most notable failure has been the rise of jail populations, which have begun to climb after a 26 percent reduction between March and July.

Since July, 77 percent of the jails studied by PPI have had population increases, “suggesting that early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned.”

Following the first wave of responses to the pandemic, “many local officials have allowed jail admission to return to business as usual,” wrote Widra.

In Philadelphia, for example, jail admissions dropped 17 percent after arrests for low-level offenses were suspended, and judges released detainees convicted of non-violent minor offense.

“But on May 1, as the pandemic raged on, the Philadelphia police force announced they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts,” the paper said.

The trend flies in the face of acknowledgments by many authorities and corrections health experts that decarceration is critical to limiting the pandemic’s spread, said PPI.

The failure to heed their advice “continues to put incarcerated people’s lives at risk—and by extension, the lives of everyone in….communities where incarcerated people eventually return, and where correctional staff live and work,” the paper said.

The full policy brief can be downloaded here.

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