COVID-19 has the world on high alert. In recognition that the coronavirus is spreading quickly among high concentrations of people in close proximity, schools are being shut down, conferences rescheduled, international travel is being restricted, and cruise ships –the early incubators of the virus–are being quarantined. Those measures are all sensible, but they also drive home how little attention is being paid to the millions of people in the most overcrowded conditions that are ripe for the spread of this contagious and deadly virus: the people behind bars in America’s jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers.
There are 2.3 million adults and children locked up in the United States in various systems of confinement, including state and federal prisons, local jails, youth correctional facilities, and immigration detention centers. Far more cycle in and out of jail on a daily basis; there are 10.6 million jail admissions every year.
Our country’s jail and prison populations have exploded over the last few decades, a result of people being prosecuted more often for less serious behavior; an increase in the severity of sentences imposed; and our cash-based pretrial detention system, which keeps hundreds of thousands of people in jail prior to any determination of guilt and merely because they can’t afford to pay bail. Recently, immigration detention has reached record proportions, despite apprehensions at the border being far below historic highs. The result of these practices is overcrowded jail, prison and immigration detention facilities that force people together in close quarters without access to proper hygiene or medical care, sometimes living barracks-style in gyms or other open spaces, breathing the same recycled air for up to 23 hours per day. These conditions are fertile ground for the spread of a virus like COVID-19.