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As the world continues to be gripped by the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes, much study has been conducted into the effects it may have on world populations. The virus has already caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, including COVID-19 prisons deaths in facilities across the United States. Prison populations have long been considered at risk for infectious diseases, and the coronavirus is no exception. A new model study has shown that reducing prison populations can in fact curtail the spread of the virus, and may even lower the death toll for all of America.

COVID-19 and Prison; Analyzing Death Statistics

Although researchers have been delving deeply into the novel coronavirus and its effects, preliminary studies have uncovered several chilling possibilities. Early reports suggested that as many as 200,000 people could die as a result of complications from the virus. More advanced predictive models have alternatively raised and lowered that statistic; the Trump administration predicts fewer than 100,000 deaths, while other models are predicting 300,000 or more deaths.

So far, many of the models run by government agencies have failed to take into account prison populations and what effect those populations may have on the spread of the virus, not only within prisons but in communities throughout the country. Prisons are especially susceptible to the spread of diseases, including the coronavirus, for several reasons. Primarily, these reasons are centered on the close confines, poor hygiene, and limited healthcare options for inmates. Prison staff entering and leaving incarceration facilities may also contribute to the spread of the virus into communities outside the walls of the prisons as well.

As of April, 2020, nearly 150 prisoners have died from complications of COVID-19. Several thousand inmates in prison facilities have also tested positive for infection. Prison officials are also at risk, with jail guards and other corrections personnel increasingly testing positive for the coronavirus. Positive cases are growing rapidly in prison populations across the country, potentially putting thousands of American lives at risk.

The ACLU Study

In the early part of 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) partnered with epidemiologists, mathematicians, and medical professionals to study COVID-19 prison deaths, particularly in combatting potentially high numbers of deaths among inmates. Based on an earlier model that predicted 200,000 U.S. deaths from the coronavirus, the study suggested that by reducing prison populations dramatically, over 100,000 of those deaths could be avoided. In the study, the model shows that as many as 23,000 inmates can be saved from coronavirus deaths, while an additional 76,000 people in surrounding communities can also be saved.

The study was spurred by many government-backed researchers ignoring the public health impacts of the prison population in the United States, and the lack of a public health response to growing numbers of infected prisoners.

Are Prisoners being released Due To Coronavirus?

Faced with fast-growing infection rates among prison populations, many state governments have moved quickly to address the situation. Governor Gavin Newsom of California ordered state prison officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to accelerate the release of almost 3500 prisoners from prisons like:

Commutations of an additional 21 felons were also issued by the Governor’s office. In addition, over 3000 prisoners awaiting transfer to state incarceration facilities were also frozen in place, remaining within county jails across the state.

Other states have followed suit, commuting the sentences of certain non-violent prisoners or tightening sentencing to address only the most serious of crimes. Mass prisoner releases have taken place or are scheduled to occur in Kentucky, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey. Federal prisons are investigating the feasibility of early releases of inmates suffering from serious health conditions or those inmates who are elderly; these two groups are considered high risk for infection.

A Path Forward: Will More Prisoners Be Released Due To Covid-19?

The ACLU study points to several tactics for controlling the spread of the coronavirus into prison populations and out into surrounding communities. The tactics include:

  • Eliminating arrests for minor offenses; reserving arrests and jail time for only the most serious criminal offenses.
  • Speeding the release rate to double the current rate for inmates deemed non-violent or who are serving sentences for non-violent/petty crimes.
  • Releasing vulnerable prisoners who are elderly or are at risk of severe illness or death due to existing health concerns.

The model shows that these steps could save tens of thousands of lives. In fact, just stopping arrests for all but the most serious criminal offenses could potentially save as many as 59,000 people, including both prison inmates and everyday citizens of communities across the United States. COVID-19 prison deaths may not be completely avoidable, but by implementing the recommendations of the ACLU and public health officials, curtailing the spread of the virus into communities has the potential to save many lives.

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