Analysts: Prisons must further reduce populations to reduce COVID-19 spread

A panel of medical and legal experts claim states have not done enough to reduce prison populations in response to the pandemic

By James Mayse

WASHINGTON — States have not done enough to reduce prison populations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a panel of medical and legal experts assembled for a forum on jail populations by the Sentencing Project.

The Sentencing Project is a Washington-based nonprofit group that works on criminal justice reforms, particularly alternatives to incarceration and addressing racial disparities. The forum, which was telecast, featured an infectious disease specialist and a law professor from the University of Michigan who said more needs to be done to reduce prison populations because of the risk that COVD-19 could infect large numbers of prison inmates and staff.

An outbreak in a prison will spread to the community at large, the speakers said.

Jails and prisons, “have become the epicenter or the hotbed of transmission in the United States,” said Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Colorado. Franco-Paredes cited data compiled by the University of California Los Angeles that found there were 29,290 inmates infected with COVID-19 across the United States.

As of last week, 401 inmates nationwide had died of COVID-19, Franco-Paredes said, citing the UCLA data.

According to the Kentucky Department of Corrections, as of Thursday, 357 inmates and 50 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at Green River Correctional Complex in Central City since the beginning of the pandemic. Two inmates have died of the virus at GRCC.

Speaking of COVD-19 cases in prisons nationwide, Franco-Paredes said “the driver of those outbreaks are usually the staff,” because staff members are in the community at large between shifts.

Like others, corrections officers may not know they have the virus for a period of days although they are infectious.

“What is different here is this virus is a master of disguise,” he said. People in prison have “accelerated aging,” where a 55-year-old in prison is equivalent to a 65-year-old and deals with issues such as crowded conditions, chronic conditions like diabetes and hepatitis C, and access to medical care, Franco-Paredes said.

“Depopulating prisons is the best or only way to achieve social distancing,” Franco-Paredes said. From talking with inmates since the start of the pandemic, “I’ve never seen fear the way I’ve seen it in these places,” he said.

Nazgol Ghandoosh, the Sentencing Project’s senior research analyst, said while prison populations nationwide have declined by 9% between 2009 and 2018, there have been “only modest reductions” during the pandemic, Ghandoosh said.

Kentucky has taken steps to reduce state inmates in jails in prisons, particularly among those who were near the end of their sentence, or who are medically vulnerable.

Nationwide, there was a 29% decrease in prison inmates with drug convictions and an 18% decline in inmates in prison for property crimes. Ghandoosh said there was a 2% decrease in prison inmates incarcerated on violent crimes.

Sonja Starr, a law professor with the University of Michigan, said, “It’s important to emphasize it’s not merely the lives of people in jail at risk” if COVID-19 infects a prison population. “... Prisons and jails are not isolated from society.”

As social distancing is relaxed in states, the likelihood of transmission in prisons could increase, Starr said. “Staff and inmates who are released … will take it home,” Starr said.

Prison populations could be further reduced by postponing some sentences until the pandemic is over, and by putting inmates in prisons on parole violations on home incarceration, Starr said. The options aren’t “leave them where they are” or “completely terminate their sentence,” she said.

Starr said some older inmates who were charged with violent offenses could be released with a low risk of reoffending. Starr cited research she conducted that found inmates over age 55 had a 1% chance of reoffending generally, while inmates over 55 who had a violent offense conviction had a 0.5% chance of committing a new violent offense.

“I’m not saying there’s zero risk, but there’s never going to be zero risk,” Starr said.


©2020 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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