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New ACLU Study Says COVID-19 Deaths in Prison Will Soar Without More Releases, Fewer Arrests

An April 22, 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, with the collaboration of researchers from Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Tennessee, shows that COVID-19 deaths in jails, prisons and the communities where they are located will skyrocket unless there are fewer arrests and more releases of more low-level offenders.

According to the ACLU, “Models projecting total U.S. fatalities to be under 100,000 may be underestimating deaths by almost another 100,000 if we continue to operate jails as usual.”

On May 28, 2020, the total U.S. death toll stood at more than 102,000, lower than some original projections, apparently brought about by extensive lock-downs and stay-at-home orders in many states and municipalities. People have been cautioned to “social-distance,” wear masks and avoid unnecessary travel to avoid spreading the virus. However, those who run America’s over-crowded jails and prisons have not gotten the message.

This potential disaster has come about for a variety of reasons, first of which is that the United States continues to lock up individuals at the world’s highest rate. With 5% of the world’s population, it detains approximately 20% of the globe’s prisoners.

These prisoners are still disproportionally low-income people of color. 

“Social distancing” is impossible in jails and prison. Medical care is poor, and alcohol-based products needed to sterilize surfaces are banned and considered contraband. Prisoners continue to be transported to different prisons, and guards, who bitterly complain that they lack adequate personal protective equipment, and who are in close daily contact with prisoners, then go home to their families.

The following day, those same guards and prison staff return to the same unsafe work environment. The situation is even more dire in the many county jails, where there is more “churn” and a “revolving door” of individuals being released by ending their sentences or by posting bail to win their freedom, and then returning to their community and their families.

The ACLU study puts the responsibility for reducing the death toll on governors, judges, and law enforcement officials, and recommends that arrests be reduced by 50 percent. The rate of release for the elderly and unwell prisoners should be doubled to “save 12,000 lives in jails, … (and) 47,000 lives in the surrounding communities.” If arrests are limited only to the most violent individuals, “we can save 23,000 lives in jails, and 76,000 lives in communities,” the study concluded.