Austin, Tx/USA - May 23, 2020: Family members of prisoners held in the state prison system demonstrate at the Governor's Mansion for their release on parole due to the danger of Covid-19 in prisons.

Jails and COVID-19: An Overlooked Public Health Crisis in Philadelphia

By Katherine Zuk

Since the start of the pandemic, jails and prisons have continuously struggled to stop the spread of COVID-19 cases.

The novel coronavirus has been ravaging the U.S. since late February, with over 6 million cases and 185,092 deaths. Emerging data shows alarmingly high rates of COVID-19 in jails and prisons nationwide, including over 85% of inmates testing positive at two facilities in Ohio. As of September 3, there have been at least 180,045 cases and 928 deaths in prisons alone – and many fear these numbers are severely underreported.

Philadelphia offers an unfortunate case study.

The first case of coronavirus was recorded in Philadelphia on March 10. The City of Philadelphia declared a lockdown on March 16, 2020, and at that time, the city’s jail population was 4,727.

By May 5, only about 7% of those in jails were tested, and more than 75% of those tested positive.

Efforts to reduce the city’s jail population have been restrained, despite the health crisis. As of August 31, 2020, the jail population decreased to 3,986. From April 5 to July 5, admissions averaged at 182 per week and releases averaged at 214 per week. Releases peaked the week of April 12 with 367, while admissions peaked the week of May 10 with 279.

An alarming 73% of the August jail population was identified as Black, which has increased from 67.5% in 2015.

Low-income communities, and especially Black and Latinx populations, face higher rates of arrest and incarceration, and research shows those same communities are disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

In Philadelphia, nonprofit and legal aid organizations have been fighting for the immediate release of vulnerable incarcerated populations, but the appeal was denied.

By contrast, a similar order was approved by New Jersey’s chief justice, demonstrating an important precedent for these cases. On April 10, Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf signed an order for the reprieve of 1,200 to 1,800 prison inmates, but as of June 30, only 159 have been released.

Criminal justice reform activists in Pennsylvania launched a hunger strike in response the Governor’s inaction, and inmates in Philadelphia’s jails and prisons have filed lawsuits regarding the poor conditions during the pandemic.

Jails and prisons face unique challenges in managing the spread of COVID-19. Jails in particular are high-traffic, with an average of about 200,000 people moving through facilities weekly nationwide. Inmates are not isolated from their community; the facilities where they are held are linked to neighboring communities – with visitors and staff traveling to and from daily.

Conditions inside of jails and prisons are not conducive to physical distancing and disease prevention. Communal bathrooms, cafeterias, and cells, combined with limited access to health services and healthcare, pre-existing health conditions of inmates, sanitation practices, and substandard nutrition makes it a “petri dish” for infectious diseases. Further, hand sanitizer is contraband due to its alcohol content. Prisons have a history of substandard conditions for those more susceptible to illness, with some transferring patients to solitary confinement to contain the spread of disease. Recent reports estimate the number of people locked alone daily for 22-24 hours grew from 60,000 to 300,000 during the pandemic.

A letter signed by more than 60 inmates at Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center was sent to the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund stating that the facility is not following CDC guidelines. Cells are shared by those who have tested positive and those who have not, guards are not always wearing gloves, and more deaths are being witnessed than reported. Philadelphia jails have not been releasing data regarding whether or not staff has been tested. The recent social unrest over police violence have created an additional strain on jail systems, potentially further facilitating the spread of coronavirus.

And though guidelines exist for preventing the spread of coronavirus in correctional facilities, there is no enforcement mechanism. It is difficult to take swift action to protect this population because of the many groups enmeshed in the legal system. Philadelphia judges and courts, district attorneys, defenders associations, probation and parole officers, jail staff, guard unions, the Mayor, and the Governor all have a role in mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but do not necessarily collaborate. Approaches and reporting have also varied vastly by county.

Testing in jails has been low in Philadelphia County. By comparison, neighboring Montgomery County tested every inmate, and Chester County routinely updates case information. Prior to instituting universal testing of inmates in Philadelphia jails on May 15 – two months after the Philadelphia stay-at-home order was issued – Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said that he “did not see a clear benefit to universal testing behind bars.”

How are other cities containing the spread in their jails?

Rikers Island jail in New York City is struggling with its ongoing overcrowding issues. Cook County jail in Chicago is linked to 16% of coronavirus cases in Illinois. Los Angeles has been sued by inmates over jail conditions.

Reporting of COVID-19 cases inside jails and prisons is not uniform. In some states, jails and prisons are routinely updating information on confirmed cases. Elsewhere, nonprofit organizations are compiling data from each facility. More numbers are being released from prisons than jails, but there is no consistency in public reporting.

UCLA Law’s Behind Bars Data Project is compiling a comprehensive list of confirmed cases, jail releases, legal challenges, and policy responses to the crisis in correctional facilities.

So long as cases grow among the incarcerated, those who are being released and those who are working in those facilities will continue to spread COVID-19 to their communities. Epidemiologists estimate that, under current circumstances, the spread of coronavirus in jails and prisons could cause the death of an additional 100,000 people.

Public health law experts emphasize the importance of expanding testing in jails and continuing that testing and support post-release. Mitigating disease spread in jails and prisons is of crucial importance in its own right, and as a component of both statewide and national plans to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katherine Zuk is an MPH-MSW student at the Temple University College of Public Health who works for the Center for Public Health Law Research. She also serves on the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge’s Community Advisory Committee in Philadelphia.

Correction: A previous version of this post cited data from the Vera Institute of Justice’s county jail incarceration trends,  placing the daily jail population in Philadelphia at 8,045. The post has been updated with numbers provided by the city, and now includes more detail on jail admissions, releases, and demographics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Based at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the Center for Public Health Law Research supports the widespread adoption of scientific tools and methods for mapping and evaluating the impact of law on health. It works by developing and teaching public health law research and legal epidemiology methods (including legal mapping and policy surveillance); researching laws and policies that improve health, increase access to care, and create or remove barriers to health (e.g., laws or policies that create or remove inequity); and communicating and disseminating evidence to facilitate innovation.

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