CORONAVIRUS

Jails Are Coronavirus Super Spreaders, Could Double COVID-19 Death Count: Report

A study released by the ACLU finds that coronavirus death models fail to account for the role jails will play in spreading COVID-19.

COVID-19 prediction models fail to take into account the role that jails play in spreading coronavirus and could severely undercount the total United States death toll, according to a new epidemiological study by academic researchers that was released by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Other countries that have battled coronavirus don’t have the same levels of incarceration as the United States, and conditions in American correctional facilities are inferior to other first-world countries. And it’s not just inmates and guards who will suffer: Jails will “act as vectors for infection in their surrounding communities,” according to the model.

The model released by the ACLU predicts that Trump administration models projecting the United States death count at under 100,000 “largely fail to consider several factors that will explosively increase the loss of life unless drastic reforms are adopted to reduce the nation’s jail populations.” The ACLU model predicts that failures to reduce jail populations and implement effective social distancing at jails could double the United States’ coronavirus death count to 200,000.

“This is a unique problem that the United States has that other countries that are fighting the coronavirus are not facing,” the ACLU’s Udi Ofer told HuffPost. “We think this is going to be our Achilles heel ... if we continue to operate jails as business-as-usual.”

Inmates inside Cook County Jail post messages in the window and signal to protestors outside on April 12 during the coronavir
Inmates inside Cook County Jail post messages in the window and signal to protestors outside on April 12 during the coronavirus pandemic. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The New York Times found that four of the top 10 largest-known infection sources in the United States were correctional facilities. Jails, with their high rate of turnover, are particularly effective at spreading coronavirus in their surrounding communities.

In the Chicago region, more than 700 detainees and correctional officers at Cook County Jail have tested positive for coronavirus. Four detainees have died since the outbreak. HuffPost’s 2016 jail deaths project, which sought to identify jail deaths across the United States, identified 14 deaths at Cook County Jail over the course of an entire year.

“What this model shows is that until we take our mass incarceration crisis seriously and understand that it plays a huge role in the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, we’re not going to be able to go back to life as usual,” Ofer told HuffPost.

The ACLU report said that by taking aggressive action and ending arrests for all but the very most serious crimes and doubling the rate of release, policymakers could save up to 23,000 lives of people in jail and 76,000 in the broader community.

As HuffPost has previously reported, federal government data on jail deaths runs several years behind. The 2015 and 2016 jail death data, released in February 2020, identified 1,092 deaths in local jails in 2015 and 1,071 deaths in 2016. At its current pace, the Justice Department won’t release jail death data from this year until 2024.


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