Many people across the nation are following the recommendations to self-isolate, wash their hands, and stand at least six feet away from others in public settings. But what if you couldn’t do these things? Imagine that you are constantly near others, and sometimes the furthest you can get is three feet apart. Imagine you have limited access to running water, soap and hand sanitizer. Imagine that the people around you are testing positive for COVID-19. In the middle of a pandemic, would you feel safe in these conditions?

These are some of the realities that people in jails and prisons in the United States are living today, and these conditions make it impossible to follow the basic steps required to protect against COVID-19. This is why public officials need to move swiftly to reduce the number of people imprisoned and provide comprehensive screening, treatment and access to better hygiene for those who will remain incarcerated.

Even before COVID-19 hit the United States, there were a variety of reports on jails and prisons being “on edge” and overcrowded. New reports highlight how unsanitary they are. These details show us that jails and prisons have sanitary and physical infrastructure issues that increase the likelihood of the virus spreading. In fact, some evidence suggests that incarceration increases the contagion rates for infectious diseases.

These problems affect the surrounding community, as well. There is a high level of turnover in jail populations; every week, across the nation, about 200,000 people move in and out of jails, not including staff. It is clear that in a situation where one COVID-19 case can ultimately result in tens or hundreds more, we need to move people out of jails before they get sick.

Early data from New York’s Legal Aid Society shows that there already have been outbreaks within some jails, and with under-reporting and under-testing, it is likely that the true numbers are significantly higher. Many facilities across the country have cases of workers with positive COVID-19 tests. There is also a report of the first inmate to have died of COVID-19.

A great number of people are in jail for minor charges that would not threaten public safety, should they be released. These charges include technical parole violations, such as missing curfew, failing a drug test, or not notifying their parole officer of a change of address. Many of them have untreated or undertreated substance use disorders or mental illness. Many of them have been charged but not convicted, are waiting to pay bail, or are waiting to reach trial because they can’t afford the price of freedom.

There is also the question of young people in prison. In the United States, more than 48,000 children are incarcerated on a given day for offences such as truancy or homelessness. Immigrant detention facilities have also reported youth contracting the virus.

Clearly, we need to improve the safety of all people who are incarcerated, and we need to push back on demonizing narratives found in some media. Recognizing the humanity of this population means understanding that many reside in mortal danger of COVID infection in prison or jails. Often, people with substance use disorders or mental health conditions are labelled as dangerous or a threat to society, and incarcerated for offenses resulting from their illnesses. In reality, they and society would be better served with treatment and resources. Many are criminalized due to the racist and classist “war on drugs,” and that should not mean a possible death sentence during a crisis of global pandemic.

The current structure and operation of many prisons and jails present a unique threat to the containment of this virus and the safety of many, requiring a quick response. We need to:

  • Release people: immediately release people who are near the end of their sentences or who have severe illnesses and who do not pose a threat of violence.
  • Stop arrests and imprisonment for non-violent parole and probation violations. If there must be charges, use citations: eliminate the physical interactions of the booking process following an arrest, and cite and release people instead.
  • Halt court proceedings and jail admissions for cases not involving violent crimes: ask prosecutors to stop bringing new cases to court, and ask judges to determine if technical violators and those awaiting trial and sentencing can be released.
  • Fund trainings and screening related to the virus: set up the infrastructure to support community-based providers with infectious disease expertise going into jail and prisons to provide treatment. Also, train corrections officers to identify symptoms and respond appropriately.
  • Fund and expand pre-arrest diversion: in order to reduce the number of people going into jails, we must provide resources that aid diversion.
  • Fund and expand re-entry programs: integrate services for substance use and mental illness with treatment for other illnesses and wrap-around services that help people reintegrate into their communities.

Ending punitive approaches has long been a cornerstone of advocacy for people with substance use disorders, people who use drugs, and many others who commit minor offenses. Now, more than ever, it is vital. If we do not act fast, many people will die in jail from COVID-19. Already, we are seeing officials in many locations taking some of the steps recommended above. We need bolder, immediate action from these officials and others across the country. Those with the power – governors, mayors, district attorneys, judges – need to act now to avert a large-scale humanitarian crisis. As advocates, we must work hard to sway them.

Imagine if you were in these conditions. Wouldn’t you want someone fighting for you?