With prison staff and prisoners testing positive for coronavirus in Washington and on Rikers Island, President Trump is now weighing a move to release nonviolent, elderly people from federal prisons. A decision to release these individuals would be smart policy: Officials need to face the likelihood—the near certainty—that COVID-19 is spreading among people incarcerated in prisons and jails. Immediate measures are needed to prevent these institutions from becoming major hotbeds of infection.

Jails and prisons are not controlled environments, and they present significant infection risk to incarcerated folks and the general public. There is probably no setting in America better suited to the spread of communicable disease. The vast majority of prisoners are not held in cells, where people can be isolated (and even if they are, inmates must congregate to eat or exercise). Instead, they’re incarcerated in open-air dorms, often dirty and poorly ventilated, with hundreds of people stacked in bunk beds mere feet from each other. Shower and restroom facilities are shared, and overcrowding is common. Imprisoned persons are almost never able to give themselves the CDC-recommended 6 feet of social distancing.

Products like alcohol-based hand sanitizers and bleach are universally denied to incarcerated people, and in almost every state prison, incarcerated people have to buy their own hygiene products—pushing the cost of incarceration onto prisoners and their families. Add a sizeable cohort of people older than 55 (more than 10 percent of state inmates in 2013, up from 3 percent a decade earlier) and high rates of HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis, heart disease and other immunity-compromising conditions, and it’s clear prisons and jails are ideal vectors for the spread of COVID-19.

We ought to care about the health of the 2.3 million Americans held in prisons and jails. No matter what crimes they committed, they are human beings—often from difficult backgrounds—and deserve our attention. But if you aren’t convinced by the humanitarian argument, consider this: Despite widespread suspension of visitations during the coronavirus crisis, prisons remain porous places. Guards, medical personnel, staff members and local law enforcement necessarily come into contact with inmates every day, then head back into the community. If we don’t stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, they will become agents of community spread.

But prisons and jails aren’t the only parts of the criminal justice system that should worry us. Every day, tens of thousands of the more than 4 million Americans on probation and parole head into courts and administrative buildings, spending hours in grimy public buildings to have minutes-long face-to-face meetings with supervision officers. And thousands of arrestees are packed every day into courtrooms to answer for low-level offenses in misdemeanor and drug courts.

In the midst of a viral epidemic, continuing to operate in this fashion is, to put it bluntly, insane. Yet far too many local and state courts, jails, prisons, and probation and parole offices continue to proceed as if nothing has changed—even as schools, bars, restaurants, gyms and businesses shutter because of COVID-19. Our nationwide addiction to incarceration seems unbreakable, even when it puts us at risk of disease.

Luckily, there are localities where forward-thinking officials have taken steps to prevent widespread infection. One bright spot, ironically, is Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga County jail came close to a federally mandated shutdown last year because of appalling conditions, widespread assaults, harassment of inmates by guards and a rash of inmate suicides. The jail has been under scrutiny for more than a year, and Warden Eric Ivey pleaded guilty to obstruction for ordering guards to hide evidence during an investigation into an inmate’s death. Local officials rightly feared that the still-overcrowded jail would become a COVID-19 incubator. So judges in Cleveland held an extraordinary Saturday session, arranging and bonding out arrestees with the goal of releasing more than 300 non-violent inmates from the jail. The local probation office has reached out to supervisees, replacing in-person check-ins with phone calls. And Sheriff David Schilling told police departments in surrounding communities that the jail will no longer accept misdemeanor defendants in an effort to avoid community spread caused by arrestees cycling in and out of jails.

More local judges, sheriffs and prosecutors need to take these kinds of proactive measures. Then, once this epidemic is over, we might ask ourselves: What kind of long-term reforms are needed to prevent jails and prisons from becoming incubators of disease in the first place? Is all of this vast criminal justice infrastructure really needed to keep America safe?

Image credit: Dan Henson

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