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Unpacking a Complicated Problem: Safely Changing Jails and Prisons during the COVID-19 Pandemic
May 6, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic upends old routines, one question receives increasing attention: how to minimize spread in prisons and jails.
Current approaches fall into two camps: early release for some inmates or current release practices with new in-prison health precautions. This pits fears for public safety against fears of harm to inmates and correctional staff. But both are oversimplifications.
Complexities of Early Release
Determining who can be safely released is difficult. It is not as simple as releasing non-violent offenders or those near the end of their sentences. Three considerations should guide early release: who gets released, what services they need, and how their release impacts other agencies.
Research has identified factors linked to lower recidivism, such as age, offense type, and social supports. Risk assessments are common tools that can offer clearer insight by synthesizing criminal history and other risk factors to predict the likelihood of reoffending. But they are not silver bullets. Research has identified biases in some assessments, and to be useful, they need to be validated by jurisdiction.
That’s only part of the picture. Inmates have needs upon release. If the local community can’t address them, the recidivism risk could be wildly different from a tool’s prediction. The pandemic aggravates challenges released offenders already face finding housing, employment, and medical care. And COVID-19 is overwhelming the public benefit systems many inmates rely upon.
Finally, most inmates released will require supervision, shifting the strain from one overtaxed organization to another. Releasing inmates without increasing support for parole and probation officers or social services—which have already had to alter their day-to-day practices-- is setting those released up to fail and puts inmates, staff, and the community at risk.
Complexities of Keeping Inmates Incarcerated
Keeping inmates incarcerated poses equally formidable challenges. In general, inmates have higher risk of medical problems. And the aging prison population places many prisoners in a high risk group. Accordingly, inmates have a higher COVID-19 risk.
In addition, the design and operations of prisons and jails don’t support social distancing. Multiple inmates share a single cell, and overcrowded dormitories provide little personal space. Solitary confinement provides physical distancing but may lead to worse physical and mental health.
Hygiene and basic medical care are also difficult in prison. Most prisons previously banned products like sanitizer, and many prisons charge fees for hygienic supplies or non-emergency medical care. This raises the risk of infection.
Finally, COVID precautions mean inmates aren’t receiving programming or visits. These activities are linked to decreased misconduct in prison and jail and greater success after release. Their absence may affect the safety of inmates and staff now and successful reentry later.
One Size Does Not Fit All
National or even statewide solutions are inadvisable. For starters, prisons and jails hold very different populations with different needs, and their staff receive vastly different training. Even if we focus only on prisons, the conditions within these facilities differ greatly by state and often even by county, as will the availability of local resources—from community corrections agencies to healthcare.
So Where Do Go From Here?
Despite these complexities, solutions exist. If a jurisdiction pursues early release:
Risk and needs assessments can help prisons and jails release inmates with minimal risk to public safety and identify the needs of those released with little additional investment of resources. But increased reliance on the tools will increase the consequences of their flaws. It is imperative instruments be validated locally.
There should be an adequate support infrastructure: social workers, community supervision agencies, and other staff responsible for successful reentry of released inmates. This could include increased funding to these agencies, and a focus on releasing inmates who have family support, thus minimizing the burden on the infrastructure.
If a jurisdiction maintains current release policies:
Prison resources and conditions should be considered when determining policy. Overcrowding, housing types, and access to virtual programming and visits can help jurisdictions know how to focus their resources.
As some states have already done, removing fees for hygienic products and medical services can increase the likelihood inmates will take necessary health precautions.
It is imperative that we acknowledge these issues and their variations from facility to facility, county-to-county, and state-to-state. The best solution for one prison may look nothing like the best solution for a jail two states over. And any approach will have drawbacks to address. By acknowledging and addressing these drawbacks, jurisdictions can pave the way for effective solutions.