Report: Jails Could Add 100K COVID-19 Deaths

A one-week delay in reducing jail populations could mean 18,000 lives lost to COVID-19, according to a new report. There are almost 740,000 people in American jails where social distancing and other preventive measures are difficult if not impossible. Photo: Shutterstock Licensed.

NEW YORK — A new epidemiological model released by the American Civil Liberties Union says unless jail populations are reduced immediately, the COVID-19 pandemic could claim about 100,000 more American lives, doubling current projections.

There are almost 740,000 people in American jails where social distancing and other preventive measures are difficult if not impossible. According to Lucia Tian, the ACLU’s chief analytics officer, one person is being incarcerated every three seconds.

“What that means is that both incarcerated people and also staff go in and out of jails, and when they come in and out of jail, they’re also transmitting that disease to the community,” she points out.

The report says ending the 95% of arrests that, according to the FBI, do not involve violent crime and doubling the rate of release from jail could save 23,000 lives in jail and 76,000 in the broader community.


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Every year, about 10.3 million people are arrested in the United States. But Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, notes that only 5% of those arrests are for violent crime while the most common charge by far is drug possession.

“Before COVID-19, we didn’t think people should be arrested for this,” he states. “But particularly post COVID-19, no one should get arrested and sent to jail for these types of offenses.”

Ofer adds that about 70% of people in American jails are pre-trail detainees who have not been convicted of a crime and many simply can’t afford to pay cash bail.

Tian says estimates of the COVID-19 death toll vary widely, from less than 100,000 to more than 1 million. But none of those models take into account the large role incarceration plays in American society.

“We’ve taken drastic measures to shut down other high density hubs like schools, like workplaces, like stores,” she points out. “But we haven’t taken that same kind of action with jails, and that’s what this mechanism is capturing.”

Tian emphasizes that the new model only addresses jail populations, not immigration detention or prisons that bring the total number of people incarcerated to more than two million.

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