A new epidemiological model released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and researchers from Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee on April 22 shows that reducing the jail population across the United States is essential for beating COVID-19. This pandemic “could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people than current projections stipulate if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced,” the ACLU said in a summary of the group’s study. 

The report states:

As a result of the constant movement between jails and the broader community, our jails will act as vectors for the COVID-19 pandemic in our communities. They will become veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus. The spread of COVID-19 from jails into the broader community will occur along two vectors that are ignored in typical models: 

1. Churn of the jail population—individuals are arrested, sent to jail, potentially exposed to COVID-19, released on their own recognizance, post bail, or are adjudicated not guilty and are subsequently released. Upon release, the virus will spread through their families and communities unless the individual is quarantined. 

2. Jail staff—staff come to work each day and are exposed to COVID-19, then return home and infect their families and communities. This vector applies to jails, prisons, and detention centers. There are ~420,000 people who work in jails and prisons in the U.S.

Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, said in a statement posted on the group’s web site that the importance of taking the steps necessary for reducing the jail population can’t be overstated. “We are likely facing massive loss of life—both in jails and in communities around the country—if dramatic steps aren’t taken to reduce the incarcerated population in this country,” he said. “Mass incarceration was a major public health crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19, but this pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point. The revolving doors of jails make them a tinderbox for COVID-19 spread within our communities. This data is a wakeup call as to the true cost of 50 years of mass incarceration and its impact on communities across the nation, disproportionately communities of color.”

The report also states:

What our model tells us with near certainty is that ignoring jails in the public health measures taken to mitigate COVID-19 spread will result in the substantial undercounting of potential loss of life. For example, if a model that doesn’t account for jails predicts that social distancing and other public health measures will keep the total number of U.S. deaths to 101,000, our model shows that that projection undercounts deaths by 98 percent. Actual deaths, once we account for jails, could be almost double, rising to 200,000. 

Lucia Tian, chief analytics officer at the ACLU, said this report is painting a fuller, more realistic picture of what the U.S. is facing amid the pandemic. “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,” she explained. “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.”

Click here to read the full report.