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COVID-19's Lessons for Jails and Prisons

created by

Mark Obbie

Solutions Journalism Network and freelance criminal justice journalist

Canandaigua, NY, USA

Print Reporter/Digital Reporter/Staff Writer

COVID-19's rampage through America's jails and prisons in the latter months of 2020 hardly qualifies anyone for solutions-journalism kudos for effective responses. But the focus of this collection is on the earliest months of the pandemic, and on responses that could have more lasting effects on incarceration trends than on pandemic control. 

On epidemiological grounds, the report card could hardly be worse. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice that has tracked COVID-19 in prisons since early in the pandemic, found as of mid-January at least 343,000 coronavirus cases in state and federal prisons since the start of the pandemic, and more than 2,100 prisoner deaths, often because prisons spread the virus by moving prisoners from one facility to another. Corrections officers and other prison employees are members of their communities, and so prisons' distinction as some of the worst virus hotspots ended up spreading the virus beyond prison walls. The same conditions that hold true for prisons – crowded conditions and poor sanitation, making prevention all but impossible once the virus is present – are even more acute in local jails, where turnover is much higher than in prisons because those held in jails are typically held on bail pending trial or serving sentences of under a year. When The New York Times documented the grim statistics in jails, it quoted one Florida prosecutor's lament: "I don’t know if there’s anything else we can do, short of opening the doors and letting people out.”

And therein lies the chief lesson to be learned: how letting people out revealed itself as a strategy that could be achieved rapidly and relatively painlessly. And, because so many jails and prisons proved able to let people out early or decline to lock up so many in the first place, this posed a provocative question that even law enforcement officials started voicing as they saw what was possible: How many people do we incarcerate needlessly during ordinary times? 

Most of the early successes at COVID-19 containment in jails and prisons turned out to be all too short-lived. But these stories teach lessons about how, without even requiring legislative changes, the system was able to incarcerate many fewer people, by encouraging police, prosecutors, courts, jailers, and community groups to think differently and act quickly. 

Stories In This Collection (6)

Emptier Jails Could Stay That Way

Reasons to be Cheerful

Text / 800-1500 Words

Cleveland’s city jail has released close to 900 inmates in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its overcrowded facilities. And the response isn’t unique – New York, LA, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, and Houston are just a few of the other cities that have taken similar measures. While an ...

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As pandemic spreads, nonprofit is on a mission to clear out Twin Cities jails, one bail bond at a time

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Text / Under 800 Words

The Minnesota Freedom Fund has ramped up its spending to pay bail for people with low-level charges. The COVID-19 threat has added urgency to this increasingly popular response to the cash bail system. With jails and prisons posing a great threat to inmates during a pandemic, there have been incr...

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How nonprofits are getting people out of metro Detroit jails during COVID-19 pandemic

Detroit Free Press

Text / 800-1500 Words

Nonprofit bail funds, which use donated money to pay the bail of low-income people held in jail on pending charges, have won the release of about 55 people in Detroit during the COVID-19 crisis. Beyond the immediate need to free more people from an environment that makes social distancing difficu...

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NM jail populations plummet amid joint efforts to avoid COVID-19 outbreak; positive test rates are low

New Mexico In Depth

Text / 800-1500 Words

New Mexico criminal justice officials joined forces to lower local jail populations by one-third in just 11 weeks, a rushed COVID-19 response that not only seems to have prevented widespread illness but also led law enforcement officials to question whether they need to lock up so many people in ...

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COVID-19 Motivates Policy Overhaul For County Jails In Montana

Yellowstone Public Radio

Radio / 5-15 Minutes

In response to COVID-19 infection fears, Montana jails rapidly shrank the numbers of pretrial detainees held on nonviolent charges in a demonstration of how quickly a change in policy – without even changing state law – can decrease incarceration rates. Based on numbers like those seen at Missoul...

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Why did 77 Ohio prisoners die of COVID-19, but just 10 in Pennsylvania?

Eye On Ohio

Text / Over 3000 Words

Pennsylvania prisons' relatively uncrowded conditions and approach to releasing people early when the pandemic hit have limited deaths in its prisons, making people incarcerated in Pennsylvania less than half as likely to die of COVID-19 as free Pennsylvanians. In neighboring Ohio, where COVID ca...

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