Picture thousands of cruise ships jammed with guests but short on hand sanitizer, protective gear and medical care. Every week, a quarter of the passengers get off, replaced by new people with the potential to either infect or be infected with the coronavirus.
There is a place like that in your community: the county jail, captained by your local elected sheriff, who is charged with preventing COVID-19 outbreaks but most likely has limited supplies and often no say in who enters and leaves the jail.
Both in large jails located in virus hotspots like New York and Seattle and in smaller jails across the country, the churn of people moving in and out threatens to accelerate the spread of the disease, endangering the incarcerated, the staff and the larger community. Some states and jurisdictions have responded by releasing prisoners or cutting jail time, but many have not.
Analysis of a database of county- and jurisdiction-level jail populations built by the Vera Institute of Justice shows the short-term flow of people through local facilities, including some who were admitted more than once, for an average week in 2017 (the most recent year with available data). The Marshall Project and The New York Times found that in a given week, more than 200,000 people are booked into jails across the country; roughly the same number walk out every week.
“It is hugely important that people understand the level of turnover in jails,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor at Duke Law School. “People may have quite short stays, and the turnover means constant cycling in and out of the community.”
Although “prison” and “jail” are often used interchangeably, it’s important to distinguish the two. Prisons hold people convicted of crimes with sentences measured in years and have more stable populations.
Jails are transient. Most there have been charged with crimes but not convicted. Many are waiting to pay bail to be released until trial or can’t afford bail. The rest have misdemeanor convictions with sentences counted in months instead of years.
Preventing the spread of the virus in jails is challenging. Social distancing is crucial, but it’s virtually impossible in dormitories with rows of beds in a common room. The same is true of two people in a single cell, or group showers or bathrooms that serve dozens. All these dangers escalate when jails are overcrowded, filthy or understaffed.
Physical contact between staff and the incarcerated is often unavoidable: Officers fingerprint, handcuff and supervise prisoners, as well as escort them to court and drive them to medical appointments. Many other people also flow in and out of jails, like family members who visit; volunteers who counsel or teach or preach; contractors who stock vending machines; and lawyers who meet their clients. Many jails have cut much of that traffic in response to coronavirus by limiting visits, services and vendors, and by moving to online and phone communication.
Early data shows there are already outbreaks inside jail walls. On Monday, New York’s Legal Aid Society reported that 36 out of 1,000 inmates tested positive in New York City jails, versus 4 out of 1,000 people in the city at large. Without knowing how many tests have been run, it’s unclear how New York’s jails, which are largely on Rikers Island, compare with other areas. If testing rates were similar, the rate of infections at Rikers would be nine times higher than that in New York City overall.
“Density is bad—we know that,” said Barun Mathema, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University who was part of a team that studied the spread of tuberculosis in a prison in Brazil. The team found that people entered the prison with low rates of infection. Within six months, their rates had shot up 30 times, and remained elevated for years after release. The prison drove the disease not only inside its walls, but also in the neighboring community, where predicted rates of infection rose, according to models of the general population.
Mathema sees the parallel with coronavirus. People inside jails are more likely to be immune-compromised; they may have diabetes, hypertension, mental illness, substance use problems or other chronic health issues.
Crowded living conditions only increase the risk of infection. “We have to figure out ways to de-densify,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Correctional Association and other groups offer guidance for corrections departments on containing the virus: Start frequent temperature screenings; take oral medical histories; limit visitors and vendors; increase cleaning; restrict movement; create spaces for isolating; coordinate with health providers; and plan for possible staff shortages.
Laurie Reid, a retired U.S. Public Health Service officer and correctional care nurse, was a liaison between the CDC and the U.S. Marshals Service for 23 years. Ms. Reid said the measures being recommended may be enough to curb the spread of the disease. But she worries that smaller jails may lack the needed masks, gloves, medical equipment, staff and—above all—room to separate people from one another.
“Really, it’s going to come down to space,” she said. “I guarantee you smaller jails are just praying that nothing happens.”
Roberto Potter, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida who worked with the CDC’s corrections team, sees the spread into jails as inevitable. “It will only take that one asymptomatic case to come in and potentially spread the disease,” said Potter.
Much attention has been focused on the nation’s biggest jails: About 150 of them each hold more than 1,000 people. Los Angeles County, the most populous U.S. county, with the nation’s largest jail population, has more than 3,000 jail bookings on the average week.
The bookings in most jails are much lower, averaging a little over 70 a week, and half book about 30 people a week or fewer.
One is Lamar County in Southern Mississippi, where Sheriff Danny Rigel said he was doing his best to follow CDC guidelines.
He weathered Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, one reason his jail is stocked with N95 masks, nitrile gloves, disposable gowns, surgical masks and disinfectant. His staff uses a forehead scanner to take the temperature of every arriving officer and person arrested. He has a fogging machine to disinfect police cars, and deputies wear masks when fingerprinting or driving detainees. A nurse is on site 24 hours a day.
His jail is single-celled, with no dorms and no “drunk tank” that holds groups. Its 164 beds are less than two-thirds full, though he fears they’ll fill up because the state has stopped picking up people sentenced to prison, leaving them in jails indefinitely.
“If we have an outbreak in the jail, we’re going to be in a bind, like everyone else,” he said. “This is like a big hurricane that we hope won’t get here.”
The way to “de-densify” a jail sounds simple: reduce bookings and accelerate releases, something over which sheriffs have limited control. Judges determine who exits jail by setting bond amounts and other conditions of pretrial release.
Police officers decide whether to arrest and book a person into jail, or issue a citation with a court date. Rigel tells his deputies to write citations for misdemeanors except for drunken driving and domestic abuse charges.
Law enforcement officials elsewhere, including New York, Houston and Southern California, have been taking a similar approach. So far this year, an average of 1,450 people a week have been booked into the jails in San Bernardino County, California, roughly the same as in 2017. That number fell to 877 for the week ending March 25.
Jodi Miller, the public information officer for San Bernardino County, said issuing citations for misdemeanors undoubtedly made a difference.
“It is difficult to know precisely why,” she said. “It may also be people are staying home and not out committing crimes.”
In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced the jail would book only those whose bond amounts were $50,000 or more, up from $25,000. Villanueva has already released 1,700 people with low bonds or who had less than 30 days left on their sentences. The sheriff also promised to identify an additional 2,800 older people or those held on low bail awaiting trial so that the district attorney and public defender could evaluate them for potential release.
Houston is home to another of the biggest jail populations, and there Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has refused to book people arrested on certain low-level offenses and has pushed for the “compassionate release” of inmates over age 50 facing nonviolent charges. In addition, Houston judges ordered the release of people jailed on the lowest non-violent felony charges, known in Texas as state jail felonies.
Last week, a federal judge began considering the release of a few thousand pre-trial inmates who could not afford to pay bail, but the governor apparently quashed that effort over the weekend with an executive order significantly restricting the use of no-cash personal bonds.
Few such measures have been taken 250 miles to the northwest in Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, where at least 640 people were booked into the jail last week, down 9 percent from the 2017 average. Of the two-thirds booked on a single charge, over half were charged with misdemeanors such as petty theft, trespass and marijuana possession or with nonviolent state jail felonies.
Many are released within a few hours or days, said Phillip Hall, a defense lawyer, “but they are still bringing germs into the jail.”
On a recent talk radio show, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn said he wouldn’t follow the lead of cities where officials have declined to prosecute low-level crimes, promising that law enforcement would take action “when bad guys cross their path.”
“It is business as usual,” he said. “We are not going to let things slide by.”
Medical experts say much more needs to be done to avert jailhouse equivalents of the plague. Wan Yang, an epidemiologist at Columbia, sees the grim numbers at Rikers Island as a warning to other jails.
“With very quick turnover, it's going to increase the risk,” she said. “Prevention is the key.”