As large jails in New York City and Chicago struggle to contain a raging outbreak of novel coronavirus among their staff and incarcerated populations, a new report from The Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress highlights the often overlooked danger of COVID-19 transmission among the more than five million people who cycle in and out of our jails each year, alongside new polling data showing broad bipartisan support for efforts to reduce the incarcerated population in order to slow the spread of the virus.
The report, written by noted author and Fordham Law School Professor of Law John Pfaff in collaboration with Data for Progress, focuses on the specific threat of COVID-19 in jails and the steps necessary to stave off a jail-based community infection crisis. It comes as Rikers Island in New York reports more than 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19, at a rate seven-times higher than the rest of the city, and Cook County Jail in Chicago reports more than 200 cases, including staff.
Jails are unsanitary, cramped, and do not allow for necessary measures to reduce transmission. They also house people who are at much higher risk of having pre-existing conditions and low access to medical care, even upon returning to low-income communities. Jails “take people from vulnerable communities, confine them in tight quarters … and then quickly return them to those same communities, where they spread the illnesses they contracted there,” Pfaff writes. “For a disease such as COVID-19, this is a particularly dangerous and lethal set of conditions.”
The report also reveals unprecedented support for the population-density relief measures needed to reduce infection:
- Nationally, 66% of voters—including 58% of Republicans—believe that officials should be considering ways to reduce jail and prison populations as a response to the coronavirus.
- Over 50% of the public, including nearly 50% of conservatives, favors releasing anyone in jail whose offense is not one that threatens public safety.
- Even larger majorities, including a majority of conservative respondents, favor releasing people who have less than six months left on their time behind bars.
- Fifty-eight percent support releasing elderly populations, and over sixty percent support reducing unnecessary jail admissions through alternatives such as a summons or ticket.
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