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US: Avoid Covid-19 Catastrophe in Jails, Prisons

Follow Proposed Standards for Social Distancing, Cleaning, Care

Signs made by prisoners pleading for help are seen on a window of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, April 7, 2020, amid the spread of Covid-19. © 2020 REUTERS/Jim Vondruska

(New York) – Government officials in the United States should rapidly address the exploding Covid-19 crisis in US jails and prisons and follow baseline standards for social distancing, cleaning, and care, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 

The 19-page report, “Averting an Imminent Catastrophe: Recommendations to US Local, State, and Federal Officials on Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons,” proposes human rights-based standards and makes recommendations to prevent widespread infection, severe illness, and massive loss of life among incarcerated people, prison and jail staff, and broader communities.

“Crowded, unsanitary conditions promote the rapid spread of Covid-19, which can be a death sentence for many,” said John Raphling, senior US criminal legal system researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But there are basic things that officials can do to stop people from dying, especially by quickly reducing the numbers of people held in the nation’s prisons and jails.”

All US jails and prisons should enable prisoners to engage in social distancing, in accordance with the guidelines set for the general population, without resorting to punitive conditions that resemble solitary confinement, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials should also ensure that everyone in jail or prison has access to adequate medical care.

There are many signs of imminent catastrophe in US prisons and jails. As of April 23, 2020, 373 people held in New York City’s Rikers Island had tested positive for Covid-19, nearly six times the rate in the rest of the city. More than 800 jail staff members were also positive. In Chicago, Cook County Jail had over 500 confirmed cases among detainees and staff. It had the nation’s highest concentration of the disease in early April, with at least 6 resulting deaths. The Bureau of Prisons reported over 1,300 confirmed cases and 30 deaths among people incarcerated in federal prisons as of April 28.

In response to the Covid-19 crisis, some officials have released people from jails and prisons. However, it is not clear that the number of people released enables those remaining in the facilities to stay safe. To better protect people in jails and prison, including staff, Human Rights Watch proposes the following baseline standard:

Reduce jail and prison populations to the point, at a minimum, at which: (1) all people in the facilities can engage in social distancing in accordance with the standard guidance authorities have given to the general population (currently six feet or greater distance in all directions at all times), without resorting to punitive conditions that resemble solitary confinement; and (2) the facility has enough available space to put all people who are ill or close contacts of those who are ill in non-punitive isolation or quarantine with access to appropriate medical care.

Further, officials should ensure medical monitoring for everyone in jails and prisons, proper cleaning and hygiene protocols, effective screening systems to keep infections from being introduced into facilities, and support for people being released into their communities.

Government officials, including police departments, prosecutors, judges, jail administrators, governors, and federal authorities, should act to achieve necessary reductions in jail and prison populations, Human Rights Watch said. Recommendations include:

  • Early release for those nearing the end of their sentences.
  • Release for those jailed for technical violations of probation or parole.
  • Release of incarcerated children, older, and otherwise medically vulnerable people, and people who are caregivers to vulnerable people.
  • Release for people held pretrial unless they pose a serious and known risk of harming others.
  • Refrain from custodial arrest, absent imminent danger, including arrests for warrants.

“The spread of Covid-19 in US jails and prison is fast becoming a public health catastrophe,” Raphling said. “Officials at all levels of government have the power to reduce the harm. If they fail to act quickly and decisively, many people may die.”

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