Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Public health officials, the CDC, and WHO have explained the importance of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine in order to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic. Unfortunately, the fact that local jails and prisons are “amplifiers of infectious diseases” is often left out of virus planning, so we — and others — have been calling for urgent action.
There are many possible actions to protect the most vulnerable in the criminal justice system and to stop the excesses of our criminal justice system from undermining efforts to control the pandemic. On March 6, we published No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform with 5 policy ideas, and The Justice Collaborative is tracking, in a comprehensive spreadsheet, national, state and local level demands for reform.
The response is still too slow, but some state and local governments are starting to take action. To help advocates, journalists, and policy makers see what positive action could look like, we are curating examples of actions taken to slow the spread of the disease in prisons, in jails, and among people on probation or parole.
Release people from jails and prisons
We already know that jails and prisons house large numbers of people with chronic diseases and complex medical needs who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and one of the best ways to protect these people is to reduce overcrowding in correctional facilities. Some jails are already making these changes:
- In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, judges began expedited hearings on Saturday to help reduce the jail population. On a single day, they released 38 people from the Cuyahoga County Jail, and they hope to release at least 200 more people charged with low-level, non-violent crimes. (March 14)
- In Los Angeles County, California, the Sheriff reported that they have released more than 600 people to mitigate the risk of virus transmission in crowded jails. (March 16)
- In Travis County, Texas, judges have begun to release more people from local jails on personal bonds (about 50% more often than usual), focusing on preventing people with health issues who are charged with non-violent offenses from going into the jail system. (March 16)
Reduce jail admissions
Lowering jail admissions reduces “jail churn” — the rapid movement of people in and out of jails — and will allow the facility’s total population to drop very quickly.
- In Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff Javier Salazar released a COVID-19 mitigation plan that includes encouraging the use of cite and release and “filing non-violent offenses at large,” rather than locking more people up during this pandemic. (March 14)
- In Los Angeles County, California, the police department has reportedly reduced arrests from an average of about 300 per day to 60 per day by utilizing citations rather than booking people, in an effort to reduce jail admissions. (March 16)
Reduce unnecessary contact, visits to crowded offices, and technical violations for people on parole and probation
We don’t (yet) know of any notable reforms in this area, but there is an important letter from current and former probation and parole executives saying what must be done to promote social distancing and continuing to support people under supervision.
Eliminate medical co-pays
In most states, incarcerated people are expected to pay $2-$5 co-pays for physician visits, medications, and testing. Because incarcerated people typically earn 14 to 63 cents per hour, these charges are the equivalent of charging a free-world worker $200 or $500 for a medical visit. The result is to discourage medical treatment and to put public health at risk. In 2019, some states recognized the harm and eliminated these co-pays. We’re tracking how states are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic:
|States that do not charge co-pays||States that have suspended all co-pays for incarcerated people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic||States that have suspended all co-pays for respiratory, flu-related, or COVID-19 symptoms||States that have not made any changes in co-pay policy in regardings to COVID-19 pandemic||States that have not replied to our survey and are presumably still using co-pays to discourage medical treatment|
District of Columbia
Reduce the cost of phone and video calls
Most federal prisons, state prisons and many local jails have decided to drastically reduce or completely eliminate friends and family visitation so as to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in facilities. In normal times, we would point to the significant evidence that sustained meaningful contact with family and friends benefits incarcerated people in the long run, including reducing recidivism. But it is even more important, in this time of crisis, for incarcerated people to know that their loved ones are safe and vice versa. While many facilities have suspended in-person visitation, only a few have made an effort to supplement this loss by waiving fees for phone calls and video communication. Here is one notable example:
- Shelby County, Tennessee suspended jail visitations, but also decided that to maintain these vital connections between families, they are waiving fees for all phone calls and video communication. (March 12)
Other jurisdictions have instituted cost reductions that — while better than nothing — are embarrassingly stingy:
- Montgomery County, Ohio has agreed to provide people in jail with 1 free phone call per day and 2 free emails per day. (March 14)
- In Connecticut, state prisons are providing 2 free phone calls per week for the next 30 days. (March 12)
- In Florida state prisons, the Department of Corrections is offering people in state prison 1 free video call, 2 free phone calls (up to 15 minutes) per week, 4 free JPay stamps each week, and they have reduced the cost of outbound videograms reduced by 50%. (March 12)
- Harris County, Texas is offering people in jails 2 free phone calls per week for the next 30 days. (March 13)
- In Delaware, people in state prison now have access to 2 free 5-minute phone calls per week for the rest of March. (March 16)
- The Vermont Department of Corrections released a statement reporting that they are offering video calling starting this week (1 free video call per week up to 25 min). (March 13)
For more information visit: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virusresponse.html