COVID-19 crisis in jails underscores issues with mass incarceration | COMMENTARY

Exterior of Chesapeake Detention Facility (CDF) in Baltimore.

Another negative consequence of America’s mass incarceration policies is being felt by correctional systems as the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus overwhelms crowded jails and prisons. Take the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore where one third of its inmates and staff contracted COVID in less than a month — as of Feb. 15, 169 inmates and 80 employees had tested positive. Concerned with the rapid spread of illness and the threat to people’s lives, attorneys have filed a class-action lawsuit against state officials on behalf of inmates for not taking the necessary precautions to keep the facility safe. Among the complaints: Inmates don’t have supplies to properly clean their cells, staff do not clean common areas frequently enough, and mask enforcement is inconsistent and often lax.

The crowded and tight quarters at correctional facilities create the perfect environment for spread of disease, which has never been more evident than during the current pandemic. Those conditions are rooted in a criminal justice system that has long focused on locking people up, giving the U.S. one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with 698 inmates per 100,000 people in the population. We also have the proud honor of being home to the largest total number of prisoners, around 2.1 million people, most of whom are are Black or Latinx.


COVID has given more urgency to thinning out the jail and prison population, whether it be by freeing nonviolent offenders or elderly inmates who no longer pose a public safety threat; using home detention more frequently or setting more people free on their own recognizance, while awaiting trial or on reasonable cash bail amounts. The court system in Maryland has done some of that since the pandemic started, but not nearly enough. The same can be said about other parts of the country too.

More focus on release could have saved lives. Data from researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published in JAMA in July, found that the number of U.S. prison residents who tested positive for COVID-19 was 5.5 times higher than the general U.S. population. After adjusting for age and sex, the death rate would be three times higher for prisoners.


Reducing the number of people incarcerated before they get COVID also could stop the spread in the community. Inmates can take the virus back to their families and neighborhoods once released. Researchers from Harvard and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris examined jailing practices and the impact of COVID transmission at the Cook County Jail in Chicago and found that “jail-community cycling far exceeds race, poverty, public transit use, and population density as a predictor of variance.” Cycling people through Cook County Jail alone was associated with 15.7% of all documented COVID-19 cases in Illinois and 15.9% of all documented cases in Chicago as of last April, according to the research published in Health Matters. The Cook County Sheriff’s office has criticized the research and said it didn’t take into account interventions that resulted in a later drop in cases.

In Baltimore, state officials aren’t commenting on the lawsuit, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm, nor what caused the COVID spread, other than to say the jail followed state health procedures. The group wants a court order for an independent expert to inspect the facility, for inmates to be given hand soap and paper towels and for common areas to be cleaned several times a day. They also want some inmates with underlying health conditions who are vulnerable to the coronavirus to be released or transferred to another facility. These are all reasonable requests in the interest of public health and given the high number of cases at the facility. The state needs to better protect inmates and correctional officers, which also keep the community safer.

What is happening in Baltimore shows the larger problem with mass incarceration, and we can only hope the country becomes less reliant on putting people behind bars long after the pandemic is over. The COVID consequences are just one of the collateral consequences that don’t need to exist

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

This story was updated to include a comment from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois.