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Column: How COVID-19 underscores the consequences of mass incarceration

April 20, 2020

By

This column originally appeared in The Gazette.

The Gazette Editorial Board got it wrong when they called for an end at efforts to bring down our jail and prison populations in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Public health officials universally agree that jails and prisons are breeding grounds for infections. According to Dr. Carlos Franco Paredes, MD, MPH from the Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado, in a letter sent to Legislators and Corrections Professionals, “Detention and incarceration of any kind requires large groups of people to be held together in a confined space and creates the worst type of setting for curbing the spread of a highly contagious infection such as COVID-19.”

If decarceration efforts cease, the health and well-being of all Coloradans is at risk. What’s more, given that the United States has long been the leader in locking people up, we are in a position to substantially depopulate without risking public safety.

Both in absolute numbers and per capita, we incarcerate more people (2.3 million) than any other nation in the world. According to public health experts, not “so-called civil liberties activists,” across the country, our overcrowded jails and prisons could prove deadly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. These public health experts warn, and we agree, that without substantial depopulation of our jails and prisons, correctional institutions will likely become epicenters for the spread of the virus and repeated reinfection of the public. Indeed, the Cook County Jail in Chicago has emerged as the single largest source of COVID-19 infections in the United States, and at Rikers’ Island, the infection rate is nearly eight times the rate of infection for New York City, putting the entire city at risk.

It doesn’t take a public health expert to understand why correctional institutions are ideal breeding grounds for COVID-19. While Coloradans are being ordered to stay home and avoid all social gatherings, many of Colorado’s jails and prisons continue to hold hundreds and in some cases more than a thousand people in close quarters, sleeping and using the toilet within a few feet of one another, and cooking and eating shoulder-to-shoulder. With medical care, hygiene supplies, and testing for the virus being extremely limited behind bars, many incarcerated Coloradans are left to fend for themselves and hope for the best. When it comes to containing a deadly virus, hope is not a strategy.

People living behind bars are more likely to die or suffer serious illness if they contract COVID-19, because compared to the general public, they are more likely to have serious underlying medical conditions. While commission of a crime does not justify such a fate, it’s worth noting that the majority of people incarcerate in jail, including in El Paso County, are there pretrial. That means they have not been convicted of a crime and remain behind bars only because they cannot afford to pay the money bond for their release. The cruelty of tying exposure to a deadly virus to having the monetary means to buy your freedom is immeasurable. It is not only people behind bars who will suffer with COVID-19 from jail conditions. Correctional staff and, ultimately, the public are also in jeopardy if we don’t depopulate our jails to allow social distancing.

Contrary to some opinions, “isolate in place” is not the reality. Our jails are a revolving door to and from community, creating the possibility of transmission from the jail to the public. Correctional staff go back and forth from the arms of their loved ones at home to close contact with the people they guard behind bars. In Colorado, we see nearly 600 people released from jail every day, most of whom have been incarcerated for 2-9 days, just enough time to become infected and then be released to the public.

There is simply no line, thin or otherwise, between the health of inmates, the health of correctional staff and the health of the public. This painful lesson is playing out in El Paso County, where at least 25 inmates are in isolation over COVID-19 concerns, multiple sheriff’s deputies have tested positive, and one deputy has tragically died of the virus.

Governor Jared Polis, and public health experts have called for depopulation of Colorado jails as critical to beating this pandemic. Many Colorado officials have taken this call to action to heart, and we have seen judges, sheriffs, prosecutors and public defenders in multiple jurisdictions working to safely bring the jail population down by releasing people who don’t pose a danger to others. In just a few weeks, El Paso Sheriff Bill Elder has worked tirelessly to thoughtfully and safely decrease the jail population by nearly 40% with numbers continuing to go down so that the jail now has room to isolate infected individuals. And this decrease has occurred with public safety concerns at the forefront, so that people who pose a threat to the safety of others remain behind bars. These efforts will help keep all El Paso County residents safer.

Unfortunately, some officials, including DA George Brauchler, have dismissed calls for decarceration as political.

This is not about politics; this is about public health. COVID-19 has brought to the forefront what many have known for decades – that the health and well-being of our nation is imperiled by our dependence on incarceration. And that without life, there is no liberty.

Thank you to Tatiana Bailey, Ph.D., for her assistance with the data.

Pete Lee is a State Senator representing District 11 in the U.S. state of Colorado. UC Health’s Doctor Kimberly Cullen is a Doctors for America Copello Health Advocacy Fellow.



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