With the COVID-19 pandemic reaching prison and jail inmates and staff — the first inmate in the state of Washington tested positive for coronavirus on April 6 and others have tested positive around the country — what should policymakers and correction officials consider when trying to protect inmates and staff?

Meghan McGinty, an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, provides information about keeping prison and jail inmates as well as staff safe. McGinty is experienced as both a disaster researcher and emergency responder. She is also teaching a course on the COVID-19 pandemic response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

How is a prison or jail especially challenged by novel coronavirus outbreak?

“Prisons or jails are what we epidemiologists refer to as ‘congregate settings.’ They are places that people congregate. Much like other settings where people gather, including schools and workplaces, prisons and jails provide an opportunity for infectious diseases to spread because of the close proximity in which people live and interact. 

“Simply put, prisons and jails present challenges by default because people live in close quarters for an extended period of time. It is difficult if not impossible given the facilities to create physical distance between individuals who are incarcerated, as well as between prison staff. Frankly, detention centers, jails and prisons are well suited to transmission of communicable diseases. 

“Coronavirus is not unique. Epidemiologists are always concerned the potential for disease transmission in any place where people eat, sleep and gather in close proximity to one another. Imagine a prison cell. How can imprisoned individuals maintain six feet between each other in a cell thats only six-by-eight feet in size? Its also not possible to physical distancing in an overcrowded dormitory.”

What can correctional facility officers do?

“Prisons and jails are increasingly challenged to keep coronavirus from being introduced given its community-wide spread. One valuable thing some states or localities are doing is decarcertation - or reducing the number of people imprisoned.

“To protect public health, it is essential that jails and prisoners release as many prisoners as if safely possible. Cities, counties or states should consider releasing anyone whose sentence is near over, who is at low risk of reoffending or who are in detention for low-level crimes like shoplifting, especially nonviolent crimes.

“Particular focus should be placed on releasing anyone who is 65 or older or has underlying health conditions that places them at increased risk related to coronavirus. For the duration of the pandemic, in person visits should be suspended and replaced using some digital platform or phone calls to enable detainees to reach their families.

“In addition to freeing detainees, its essential to protect whomever remains in jails or prisons. Jails and prisons can take several other important safety measures. They should increase cleaning, rapidly identify individuals with respiratory illness, isolate persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and replace in-person visits with tele-visits.

“Jails and prisons also have a responsibility to provide health care for individuals imprisoned within their facilities. Its important that they continue to refine their pandemic response plans to ensure local area hospitals are able to care for anyone coming from the jail or prison with COVID-19. 

“Finally, jurisdictions should also stop prosecuting drug offenses, prostitution or ‘nuisance’ crimes. Most importantly, jails should not detain immigrants or those who are undocumented.”