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While many jails acted quickly at the beginning of the pandemic to release people and reduce overcrowding, a new analysis shows those efforts have slowed.
Many local criminal justice leaders worked to reduce the number of people in county and city jails at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, but in recent months some jails are filling back up.
When the pandemic began, criminal justice experts were quick to point out that jails and prisons, with their overcrowded bunks and lack of personal protective equipment, were sure to become hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks.
In response to early concerns in April and May about correctional facilities as vectors for the virus, many in city and county government worked to reduce the number of people in jails by granting release to medically fragile people, the elderly, and those with short times left on their sentences or low-level charges. Some places even implemented policies to divert people from away from jail ahead of time by telling police to issue court summonses instead of making arrests.
While these efforts reduced populations significantly, sometimes by 50% or more, they have slowed down, resulting in a population rise in many jails, according to new analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research group based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The group studied 668 jails across the country that saw a median drop in population of more than 30% between March and May. Examining the same facilities’ population numbers at the end of July, however, the group found that 71% of the jails saw population increases from May 1 to July 22. In 84 jails, or 12%, population counts showed more people were incarcerated in July than in March.
But despite the rise in the number of people jailed in many facilities, the combined population counts of 475 county jails and 153 large jails still remained below where they were in early March.
Emily Widra, a research analyst for the Prison Policy Initiative, said that the rebounding jail populations are a cause for concern. “This is alarming because it shows that despite jails having the capacity to drop populations quickly and safely, they're abandoning those efforts, even though the pandemic continues to hit correctional facilities particularly hard,” she said.
Correctional facilities, including state prisons and city or county jails, now make up 14 of the top 15 hotspots for most positive cases tied to a single cluster, according to data compiled by the New York Times. More than 140,000 people in jails and prisons have been infected and at least 932 incarcerated people and correctional officers have died.
The PPI analysis cites examples of cities like Philadelphia that made early efforts to reduce the jail population, but scaled back the policies as time went on. The city was one that released certain people locked up on nonviolent charges and suspended arrests for low-level crimes in April—but in May, police resumed arrests for certain crimes again, reversing the earlier reduction efforts.
A city spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time that city management had “no concern about the ability to maintain the CDC’s Covid-19 protocols within prison facilities should there be an increase in population.” Police said that it was necessary to “pivot and begin to aggressively fight crime” during the summer months.
Meanwhile, the population reductions in state prisons, while less dramatic than those in jails with an average decrease of 13%, have proved to have greater staying power. State prisons populations are continuing to decline, with some states like North Dakota and Connecticut maintaining a greater than 20% reduction from their January levels.
But Widra, echoing concerns of other criminal justice experts, said that population reduction efforts in most states simply haven’t happened fast enough to control outbreaks of coronavirus when they happen behind bars. And in some states, prison populations have gone down not because people were released because of Covid spread, but because state prisons aren’t accepting new prisoners from county jails.
“Even with state prison populations decreasing, it's not happening on a large enough scale to save lives,” Widra said. “For example, although California has released thousands of people early, the prison system is still at 117% of their design capacity and the state is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in San Quentin [State Prison].”
San Quentin is currently the largest coronavirus cluster in the country, with more than 2,500 cases—meaning about two-thirds of the prison’s population has tested positive. After the 22nd incarcerated person to die from the coronavirus passed away last week, prison officials said in a statement that they take “the health and safety of all those who live and work in our state prisons very seriously and will continue to work diligently to address the Covid-19 pandemic.”
California has had at least 50 people in federal or state prison die from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. There have been at least 8,382 positive cases in prisons, a positive case rate 481% greater than California as a whole.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.