New Report Warns of COVID-19 Disaster in Rural Jails and Communities Due to Lack of Hospitals, ICU Beds

New data analysis published Friday in a report by The Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress finds that rural jails are particularly ill-equipped to handle COVID-19 outbreaks, in part because many of the communities where these facilities are located have little to no access to hospitals or ICU beds.

The authors found that 12 percent of the national jail population (around 90,000 people total) and over one-third of the jail population in some states are housed in counties without any ICU beds. About 5 percent of the total jail population (around 35,000 people) are housed in counties without any hospital at all.  The report warns this could have disastrous consequences in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak — not only for the population housed at these jails, but for the surrounding communities.

“Rural jail populations are disproportionately large and, due to a lack of resources, many of their communities are ill-equipped to handle a coronavirus outbreak among detainees, staff, and law enforcement,” said report co-author Lauren Sudeall, faculty director at the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University’s College of Law. “Thus, decarceration in rural areas may be most critical to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19.”

While much of the attention around COVID-19 in jails has focused around outbreaks in urban facilities in cities like New York City and Chicago, rural facilities will likely not be spared from the ravages of this disease, which can have severe and potentially fatal health effects. The report lays out a few complicating factors for rural jails: People living in these regions tend to be poorer, older, and less healthy, making them more susceptible to serious illness or death due to COVID-19. People detained in rural jails are more likely to be held while awaiting trial because they cannot afford cash bail, and many have prior substance use or other medical problems that are exacerbated in a pandemic. And many of the rural jails and law enforcement agencies that oversee them were already stretched thin before COVID-19.

The lack of access to healthcare resources in these facilities and communities, spurred in part by an epidemic of rural hospital closures in recent years, presents a particularly alarming challenge. Jail staffers come in and out of these facilities each day, meaning an outbreak behind bars will likely spread into the community and quickly overwhelm limited and in some cases non-existent health care resources. Additionally, the rural regions that suffer from the largest lack of healthcare resources are disproportionately home to people of color, meaning COVID-19 will disproportionately impact rural communities of color, in the same way it has in urban areas.

In response, the authors of the report recommend that local sheriffs, prosecutors, mayors, councilmembers, and commissioners take decisive action to immediately reduce rural jail populations, while also improving the conditions inside these facilities.

The full report is available here.


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