Approximately 10.5 million people cycle through jails each year in the United States. The daily population rate hovers around 750,000. The sheer number of jailed individuals raises concerns about the spread of coronavirus. With high-turnover rates, jails are constantly admitting new inmates who might have been exposed to coronavirus. Plus, detained individuals tend to be detained in close quarters—sharing bathroom facilities, eating spaces, and sleeping quarters. Social distancing is nearly impossible. So how are jails responding?
To understand the system response, it helps to know who’s in jail and how jails operate.
Jails typically house the following individuals:
Because jails operate as short-term lockups, they often don’t have facilities (sometimes) found in prisons, like medical clinics, segregation units, or program areas. Also, short-term lockup means people are moving in and out of jails more frequently than they do in prison.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, jail systems across the country are engaged in a balancing act—trying to protect the safety and well-being of inmates, staff, and the public. The jail system's response is multi-faceted, but a main priority across the country is to reduce the number of people in jail. To do this, jails must work with other criminal justice players, like law enforcement, courts, probation, and hospitals.
Here are examples of the various approaches being considered or taken around the country.
Some jurisdictions have directed police officers to stop arresting nonviolent, low-level offenders. Instead, officers issue citations that are fine-only offenses or have future court dates. By reducing the number of arrests, the number of short-term jail bookings and bail hearings decrease.
At the start of the pandemic, the state of Maine canceled 12,400 outstanding bench warrants. Courts typically issue bench warrants when a person fails to appear at a court hearing or fails to pay court fines and fees, and police can arrest that individual. Canceling the warrants removes the immediate threat of more arrests and jail bookings.
In some jurisdictions, prosecutors' officers are dismissing pending charges for certain low-level offenses. Other offices are deferring prosecutions, reducing the number of charges they file, or increasing diversion efforts (for example, prosecutors might divert a case to social services). All of these efforts reduce potential jail admissions.
Many pretrial detainees sit in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail. Increasing the number of defendants on pretrial release can significantly lower jail populations.
To this end, prosecutors and defense attorneys are increasingly asking judges to reduce or eliminate cash bail as a condition for release for nonviolent defendants. Instead, defendants would be released on recognizance (the promise to appear back in court) or on other supervision conditions (like electronic monitoring). And some prosecutor’s offices have directed their attorneys not to oppose pretrial release for defendants facing low-level charges.
Some courts have issued emergency orders regarding bail that apply during the COVID-19 emergency. California’s Judicial Council adopted a statewide emergency bail schedule setting bail at $0 for many misdemeanors and some lower-level felony offenses (that order has now expired). Presiding judges of Alaska’s judicial districts issued a similar order, establishing a statewide emergency bail schedule directing judges to release most misdemeanants on recognizance.
In some jurisdictions, judges or law enforcement officials have authorized early release of jail inmates who meet certain conditions and are not considered a risk to public safety. Some examples include:
New Jersey issued a statewide order suspending certain jail sentences. The state supreme court signed off on an agreement worked out between the State Attorney General, county prosecutors, public defenders, and the ACLU. The order allows certain inmates to be released from jail immediately and suspends the custody portion of their sentence to a later date when the public health emergency has subsided. Inmates released on a suspended sentence may be required to finish their jail sentences at a later date unless the judge commutes (reduces) their sentence. In other states, similar jail suspensions are happening at the county level. Additionally, some county jails are suspending “weekend sentences,” which defendants will need to serve at a later date.
Even with a reduction in the jail population, jails will have inmates. For the safety and health of jail staff and inmates, other measures are being employed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Many jails require medical co-pays for inmate medical visits, medications, and testing. Co-pays can discourage inmates from seeking medical attention for coronavirus symptoms. Some states are eliminating, reducing, or suspending all medical co-pays or co-pays for testing or treatment relating to coronavirus symptoms.
Many jails are suspending or reducing in-person jail visitations to reduce exposure to coronavirus coming in and out of jails. Some jurisdictions are trying to maintain family connections by reducing costs for inmate phone calls or video conferencing.
Examples of other limitations placed on in-person contact include: reducing in-person probation check-ins, conducting court hearings by video conferencing from the jail, and increasing the use of telehealth.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but one of the key recommendations by the CDC for jails is to provide free hand soap to inmates and allow frequent handwashing. Jails often prohibit personal possession of sanitizers containing alcohol and restrict or charge for soap and other personal hygiene items. The CDC also recommends inmates be provided masks at no cost and have them cleaned frequently. Other prevention measures include increased testing and implementing quarantine and isolation measures.
Advocacy groups, health officials, and public safety officials continue to sound the alarm around the country in hopes that more jails and criminal justice partners will implement strategies to reduce jail populations and increase safety measures to prevent or slow down outbreaks. The precautions and directives relating to social distancing and hygiene don’t necessarily work in jails—making them perfect “incubators” for COVID-19 outbreaks.
Several of the country's largest jails are providing daily COVID-19 updates. Cook County Jail (Chicago, IL) reported over 15,000 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of November 19, 2020. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported over 3,500 positive COVID-19 tests for the jail population and more than 1,100 positive tests for personnel (11/19/2020). And Maricopa County (Phoenix, AZ area) reports nearly 1,700 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 (11/17/2020).
Preventing and mitigating coronavirus outbreaks in jails is important not just for inmates but also for communities—as staff and inmates circulate frequently in and between jail, home, and society.
Updated: November 19, 2020.