Coronavirus Transforming Jails Across the Country

Some sheriffs, prosecutors and defenders scramble to move people from local jails, potential petri dishes for infection.

In Houston, the massive county jail has stopped admitting people arrested for certain low-level crimes. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, people who usually spend their days fighting with each other—public defenders and prosecutors—joined forces to get 75 people released from jail in a single day. And outside Oakland, California, jailers are turning to empty hotel rooms to make sure the people they let out have a place to go.

Gary Poindexter, left, and Christopher Brown leave the Tulsa County Jail after being released on Thursday. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a special docket was created to expedite release of those locked up on low level offenses.

Across the country, the coronavirus outbreak is transforming criminal justice in the most transient and turbulent part of the system: local jails. Run mostly by county sheriffs, jails hold an ever-changing assortment of people—those who are awaiting trial and cannot afford to pay bail; those convicted of low-level offenses; overflows from crowded prisons.

Even without a global pandemic, many local jails struggle to provide adequate medical care for a population that is already high-risk: many people in jails suffer from addiction or mental illness. Some have died after lax medical care for treatable illnesses.

“Basically, the shit hit the fan,” said Corbin Brewster, chief public defender of Tulsa County. “COVID-19 is just a magnifying glass for all the problems in the criminal justice system.” 

Local officials’ responses have run the gamut. In the crisis of the moment, some are adopting measures long urged by criminal justice reformers: declining to prosecute or freeing people who have committed drug offenses or nonviolent crimes; releasing the sick or elderly; trying to reduce the jail population. For example, officials have been temporarily transferring some at-risk detainees to housing units in Kent, Washington, which were built to house homeless people.

But others have stuck to tough-on-crime tactics or rhetoric. The sheriff in Bristol County, near Boston, argued the incarcerated would be safer locked up, as would the public.

Because millions of people each year cycle in and out of jail, experts have long warned that these lockups have the potential to be petri dishes of infection—an assertion coronavirus will test. 

Already, at least one correctional officer and one prisoner at New York City’s Rikers Island jail have tested positive for the virus; others are under quarantine after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Quarantines are also underway in Silicon Valley, where a public defender who visited a Santa Clara County jail tested positive for coronavirus. The jail in Washington, D.C., began a quarantine of 65 detainees starting March 13 after a potential exposure during a trip to court.

At last count, federal data showed 758,400 people held in 3,100 local jails—but that number is only a snapshot at midyear 2019. The Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group, estimates that 4.9 million people flow through jails each year.

“It’s not like if there’s an outbreak in the jail, it stays in the jail,” said Jacob Reisberg, jails conditions advocate for the ACLU of Southern California. 

Here are snapshots of how some of the largest jail systems in the country are managing in the coronavirus era.


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