Jails and Prisons: COVID-19 Hotspots that need to be Contained

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many socioeconomic difficulties in our society. If you were lucky, you were able to stay home and limit your contact with other people as much as possible. Incarcerated persons (i.e., people in jail or prison), however, are often unable to isolate and do not have access to hand sanitizer. Consequently, jails and prisons have had severe COVID-19 outbreaks. There have been over 132,000 cases of coronavirus in prisoners and over 1,000 prisoners have died. Texas has had the most cases with 22,746 cases and 161 deaths. 

The personal experience of Larry Lawton, a former prisoner and now an honorary police officer, highlights why pandemics hit incarcerated populations so hard. In a YouTube video, Lawton discusses when MRSA was found in prisons. Lawton explains that the physical set up of the prisons with “dormitory” style gymnasiums filled with beds enables diseases to spread easily. Moreover, there are very few medical resources. John Oliver also explains that the close quarters, lack of hygiene, and uncertainty about the spread has led to prisons being hotbeds for the virus. Furthermore, prisoners do not have much incentive to come forward when they are sick, since the lack of resources in prison often results in sick prisoners being put in solitary confinement.  

There are several policies that can reduce the spread (i.e., “flatten the curve”) in incarcerated populations. These policies include things like improving hygiene, improving medical care, and releasing inmates. Releasing inmates, including pre-trial defendants, those who are close to the end of their sentence, non-violent offenders, elderly inmates who are at a low risk for recidivism, or those who are suffering from chronic illness might seem like an extreme response. However, reducing the prison population is one important way to stop the spread. And overcrowding within prisons has been an issue and the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2011 for Prisons in the state of California to cut their population numbers to 137%, which is still above the 130 percent recommended by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In Flattening the Curve in Jails and Prisons: Factors Underlying Support for COVID-19 Mitigation Policies, UTEP’s own Dr. Eno Louden and colleagues (2020) investigated factors that influence support for proposed polices to mitigate COVID-19 spread among inmates. Eno Louden and colleagues (2020) looked at the role of ideology, pragmatic concerns, attitudes toward offenders, and COVID-19 concerns on support for these policies in jails (Study 1) and prisons (Study 2). In general, negative attitudes towards inmates and fear of crime resulted in less support, while a person’s own perceived risk of COVID-19 or lack of confidence in the criminal justice system resulted in increased support. However, ideological factors were inconsistent. 

Incarcerated individuals are clearly at high risk during a global pandemic, and action must be taken. We have the chance to aid inmates and help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Perhaps by focusing on the factors that Eno Louden and colleagues (2020) identified as increasing support for these policies (e.g., the risk of COVID-19 or the problems with the criminal justice system), we can start to make policy changes that affect change within the correctional system and reducing the death rate of the people we have locked up and taken responsibility for. 

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