Jails that don’t change operations due to COVID-19 put all at risk, WSU study finds

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University epidemiologist Eric Lofgren has developed a new analytical model to better define the risks COVID-19 poses to incarcerated populations as well as the staff and community who support them.

The study, posted as a preprint on medRxiv this week, is in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), University of Pennsylvania, and University of Tennessee.

The research analyzed the Allegheny County Jail system in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and found that in a typical jail setting, operating business as usual during this pandemic will result in significant and rapid loss of life.

Beyond the direct health implications for the incarcerated, jail employees have high rates of re-entry into the general community, which increases the opportunity for the virus to spread outside of the jail system.

According to the study, large scale reductions in arrest and rapid releases are likely to save the lives of incarcerated people, jail staff and the community at large. The model predicts, for a medium-sized U.S. city, the potential to save over 1500 lives over the course of the epidemic.

Closeup of Eric Lofgren
Eric Lofgren

“Given the unique COVID-19 challenges for incarcerated populations due to limitations in social distancing, limited access to hygiene resources, and a higher rate of existing health conditions, among others, we wanted to provide a model to reveal how certain interventions of the populations can decrease the spread and save lives,” said Lofgren, infectious disease researcher at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.

The new tool provides estimates of the infection risks, and likely loss of life, that arise from current incarceration practices. The model provides estimates for in-custody deaths and shows how the within-jail dynamics lead to spill-over risks, not only affecting the incarcerated people, but increasing the exposure, infection, and death rates for both corrections officers with whom they interact within the jail system, and the broader community beyond the justice system.

The interventions analyzed include pairing increased arrest deferrals with more rapid release of persons already incarcerated. This intervention showed reduced health impacts on the jailed as well as the corrections officers and others within the jail system, as well as a 15.4% reduction of COVID-19 cases in the community. This analysis reveals that decreasing population density directly decreases disease exposure, interrupts transmission dynamics, and allows for success of other interventions.

“As COVID–19 pandemic sweeps the globe, one of the critical functions of epidemiology is to consider how society can transform current practices to increase the health and safety of the public,” Lofgren added. “The widespread risk of infection and the high case fatality rates, especially in older or medically compromised populations, means that we must be willing to consider structural reforms to our institutions.”

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