By: Danielle Russell

From “sea to shining sea,” the United States houses approximately 2 million people in correctional facilities. The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world—with 629 people behind bars per 100,000 people in the general population. The problems stemming from mass incarceration have led to a bipartisan consensus that it is a mistake. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has sprung new attention to the existing problems within American prisons and jails.

As a result of the pandemic, the institutional issues that plague correctional facilities have only been exacerbated. Inadequate access to health care, overcrowded facilities, and poor sanitary conditions, among others, have made correctional facilities an environment ripe for viral outbreaks. As such, jails and prisons function as infectious disease incubators. The introduction of newly admitted inmates coupled with the daily movement of employees creates a constant risk of carrying COVID-19 into prisons and jails, and out into the surrounding communities. In addition, social distancing is simply impossible in overcrowded correctional facilities. Between the densely populated living quarters and consistent stream of potential virus carriers, people living in prisons and jails are placed “at higher risk for getting COVID-19.” America’s jails and prisons are simply ill-equipped to protect their constituents.

The outbreaks in American prisons not only affect inmates’ health, but also correctional facility employees and the community at large. A recent groundbreaking cohort study of 1605 counties across the United States found that large-scale decarceration, among other anti-contagion interventions, “appear[s] to be necessary for epidemic control, public health, and mitigation of racial health disparities.” This study was the first to demonstrate how mass incarceration negatively impacts “public health, biosecurity, and pandemic preparedness,” in the United States. Notwithstanding such implications, most policymakers neglected to seriously consider using decarceration as one measure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in American communities and correctional facilities. 

The consequences of inadequate pandemic preparedness in jails and prisons are far-reaching. One overlooked side effect of COVID-19 and mass incarceration is the decreased safety for both incarcerated individuals and staff. Due to the increased risk of viral transmission, corrections officers have been retiring and quitting in masses. The resulting staffing shortages have made prisons more dangerous for corrections officers and the inmates they are entrusted with protecting. In Georgia, one corrections officer reported that roughly six or seven officers were tasked with looking after 1,200 people and that the facility did not have enough nurses to provide care for inmates. Although prison populations decreased at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decrease was short-lived and populations are continuing to trend upward. The consequences of correctional staffing shortages have only worsened as prison populations continue to rise.

The pandemic has shed light on additional, and tragic, consequences of mass incarceration. The criminal justice system’s failure to protect prisoners from infection created a disparate risk of severe illness and death. Policymakers and prison officials should prevent excessive spread through dedicated decarceration efforts, especially by releasing those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus and have the least chance of reoffending. In a global pandemic, it is difficult to imagine an approach to incarceration that prioritizes the safety of inmates, correctional employees, and the community at large. Hopefully, we can learn from the mistakes made, and from the latest research, to become better equipped to manage public health crises for vulnerable populations—especially incarcerated individuals—in the future.

Danielle graduated from Arizona State University with a B.S. in both Criminal Justice and Psychology. She is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her legal interests include criminal justice reform, mental health advocacy, and issues affecting low income families and communities. Her personal interests include spoiling her dachshund, Snoopy, and keeping her houseplants alive.