The novel coronavirus and the severe respiratory disease it is responsible for, COVID-19, have impacted the world in unforeseen and significant ways. From its early reports in China to a global spread of the virus – reaching pandemic levels, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) – communities around the world have had to implement draconian restrictions on populations due to the risks the virus poses. Prison populations, in particular, are at increased risk, and prison systems are taking dramatic measures to prevent and control the spread of the potentially fatal virus.

Prisons: Are Prisons Vulnerable to Communicable Diseases?

It has long been known that prison facilities and their inmates are at higher risk of being negatively impacted by communicable diseases. The close quarters associated with these facilities, coupled with the challenges in controlling disease spread through disinfection and sterilization efforts, have led prison authorities to become under prepared to handle infections.

The new risk prisons face is the novel coronavirus, which may be spread by contact with contaminated surfaces and person-to-person transmission through sneezing or coughing of infected inmates. Contrary to depictions in television and film, prisons do not always house their inmates in individual cells. Today, with overcrowded prisons the norm rather than the exception, inmates may be housed in dormitory-like facilities, or may be grouped together in sleeping and common areas. The close contact means that any communicable infection, especially an airborne pathogen, can quickly sweep through prison populations and infect large numbers of inmates at once.

Disinfecting and sterilizing prison facilities and equipment pose significant challenges as well. All too often, prison facilities are in poor condition, and prison staff may be under equipped to provide adequate cleaning efforts in disease outbreaks. If coronavirus were to enter a facility, prison staff may be at risk of contracting the disease, and may be at severe risk of violence at the hands of inmates during cleaning efforts.

Finally, with the number of prisoners being transferred into and out of incarceration facilities, staff entering and leaving on a daily basis, and a flood of visitors to prison facilities, spread of the coronavirus could affect far more than prison populations themselves.

Prisons Respond to COVID-19

One response several prison systems have implemented to prevent disease spread is the release of low-level offenders. Prisoner releases are occurring stateside and abroad. In Iran, thousands of inmates considered low-risk were released back into communities as a means of curtailing the spread of coronavirus in crowded prison facilities. The Prison Officers Association of the United Kingdom also announced that prisons in England, Scotland, and Ireland were weighing the possibility of inmate releases.

In New York, prison officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 300 offenders would be released from Rikers Island, the notorious detention facility that houses over 5000 prisoners. Rikers Island is facing disease in staggering proportions; 52 inmates have already tested positive for coronavirus, and another 100 are awaiting test results.

The state of California has taken several measures to prevent and control disease spread among prison populations. Inmates have been released from facilities in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco Counties. Governor Gavin Newsome pledged to halt new prisoner intakes for a period of 30 days to stop infected prisoners from entering facilities. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva reduced prison populations by at least 600.

Public Outcry Against Prison Responses

In the wake of COVID-19, states across the country have implemented strict rules about gathering in groups, self-quarantines, or so-called “shelter in place” orders. People are confined to their homes in the hopes of reducing the spread of coronavirus. When prisoners are released back into communities, it should come as no surprise that area residents are less than enthusiastic. Communities near prisons are concerned about upticks in crime, including violent acts, but the inmates being released generally pose little, if any, risk of violence.

Naysayers to inmate releases also indicate distrust with the process, arguing that if residents are to remain in their homes, so too should inmates until the coronavirus crisis is over. Prison officials counter these arguments with the understanding that if prisoners were to contract COVID-19 and were to die, those preventable deaths would be on their hands.

There are no easy solutions for dealing with coronavirus in the world’s prison facilities. For now, prison officials are taking early steps to reduce the likelihood of the virus causing havoc within inmate populations. As more is learned about the virus and how to stop its spread, it is only natural that new solutions will be implemented, further protecting vulnerable prison populations from the risks associated with COVID-19.

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