Since the coronavirus became a global pandemic, predictive models have been an important—and hotly debated—tool to help understand the spread of the virus and anticipate potential needs. According to the estimates coming out of the White House’s models, slightly more than 100,000 people will die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. It’s a staggering but, unfortunately, not altogether unthinkable number: more than 45,000 people have died in the U.S. so far, and COVID cases have yet to peak in many states.
According to a new report from the ACLU, it’s also a gross undercount.
According to an epidemiological model released on Wednesday, a collaboration between the ACLU and a team of academic researchers across the country shows that the number of COVID-related deaths will increase twofold if measures are not taken to adequately reduce jail populations. Even if social distancing is strictly followed in every other area of American life, running jails as per usual would potentially cause an additional 100,000 people, both in and outside of jails, to lose their lives.
“Numbers used by the Trump administration 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 writes in its report.
How could there be such a blind spot with our previous projections? As the ACLU explains, the models the U.S. uses are based on ones that have tracked cases in countries that experienced coronavirus outbreaks before we did. But those countries did not have to account for a mass incarceration problem. And with jails and prison facilities now functioning as transmission hubs for the virus, this is a huge oversight for the U.S.
“The prevailing epidemiological models largely fail to take into account our incarceration rates and the complete absence of social distancing in our jails—which is why we had to build our own model,” Lucia Tian, chief analytics officer for the ACLU, said in a press release. “While we always knew that jails would have an impact on loss of life in this pandemic, the model shows us just how large that impact may be—that even under our best-case scenarios, we could be looking at 100,000 more deaths. We can’t save our community while ignoring our jails.”
To build the ACLU model, researchers pulled data from more than 1,200 county jail systems to create predictions impacting 90 percent of the U.S. population. They also accounted for average daily arrests and releases in individual counties, as well as regional spreads of COVID-19 thus far.
The new analysis highlights the unique challenges the U.S. faces as it combats the novel coronavirus, undergoing radical changes in nearly every part of society except for its incarceration system.
The model focuses exclusively on jails because of the unique problems those facilities pose for transmitting the deadly virus. Unlike prisons, jails are meant to function as revolving doors. According to the ACLU, our nation’s jails will book 10.7 million admissions each year, with nearly 740,000 people in jail on any given day. Of that number, about two-thirds are pretrial detainees—meaning they’re assumed innocent and have yet to be convicted of a crime. To appreciate how busy American jails are, consider this: two people will have been admitted into jail in the time it takes you to read this sentence.
Because jails are designed for short stays, they’re typically overcrowded. Bathroom and shower facilities are shared, and cleaning supplies and hygienic products are limited. As criminal justice advocates and public health experts have noted, it’s impossible to practice social distancing under these conditions. And unlike prisons, people cycle out of these facilities fairly regularly: the average person spends about 25 days in jail, and the 420,000 people working as jail staff nationwide regularly work in these volatile conditions before returning home to their communities.
Knowing how jails work is essential to understanding why these facilities have been likened to “vectors,” or carriers for the virus, much in the same way mosquitos act as vectors for malaria.
Health data is notoriously difficult to collect from correctional facilities, but we do know that certain jails have experienced alarming outbreaks. Chicago’s WGN-TV reports that, as of April 20, 398 jail detainees tested positive for COVID-19, with at least seven people dying from the disease, including one corrections officer. Of all the Cook County Sheriff’s office employees that have had the virus, nearly 85 percent have been corrections officers in the county jail.
Rikers Island jail in New York continues to be one of the most infected sites in the entire country, reports the Wall Street Journal. Michigan’s prisons and jails have also been hit hard by the virus. Earlier this month, the president of Detroit’s deputies union called working in the city’s jails “a death sentence”—a phrase that’s also been used by criminal justice advocates calling for mass releases in the last few weeks.
The ACLU analysis is just as blunt: “What holds true across all counties in the United States is that jails will be the cause of many additional, avoidable deaths.”
This rare moment of agreement underscores the current severity of the pandemic in our nation’s jails, and what’s at stake if nothing changes. To put it plainly: it is impossible to contain the spread that is currently happening in American jails; not if they keep operating as they have been.
The ACLU points out how this negligence of our jail population is out of line with the radical approaches federal, state, and local officials have taken to reduce the spread of the virus. In many areas, schools have closed for the rest of the year and non-essential businesses remain shuttered; at least seven states have even required their residents to wear masks if they go out in public. But civil rights organization notes “the vast majority of states” have not applied this kind of aggressive and necessary approach to their jails.
Interestingly, the impact jail outbreaks can have on the population at large only increases when the rest of society practices stringent social distancing measures. This is because jails would effectively replace restaurants, public transportation, and workplaces as a primary hub for the virus.
“The takeaway is clear,” the ACLU writes, “social distancing measures can only be effective if we extend them to jails as well.”
This is a problem that has a clear solution: a strategic, coordinated effort to reduce jail populations and thus, reduce the spread of the virus. The new ACLU model contains useful projections for how many lives can be saved if this happens. According to its data, reducing arrests by 50 percent nationwide would save the lives of 12,000 people currently living in jails, and 47,000 additional people living outside of them.
And more aggressive action begets even more lives saved. If arrests are stopped for all but the most serious crimes (including murder, rape, and aggravated assault), and jail releases are doubled, nearly 100,000 more lives can be saved (23,000 in jail, and 76,000 from surrounding communities).
To drive down the number of people in jails, the ACLU has included a detailed list of recommendations in its analysis. Prosecutors can decline to prosecute custodial arrests for low-level charges, for instance, and county sheriffs can work to release anyone in a jail facility who is vulnerable to becoming severely ill from the virus, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. Chiefs of police and sheriffs can also decline to arrest people unless there’s an imminent, serious risk of bodily harm to another person; otherwise, they can offer summons for serious offenses and verbal warnings and citations for low-level charges.
The ACLU cites Colorado was one state that seems to have gotten it right. There has been a 31 percent reduction in the jail population in that state, a decision that the ACLU model estimates could have saved around 1,100 lives.