As the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S. and surge in an increasing number of states, it is critical that we consider the role of jails in the transmission of the virus. Even with highly effective social distancing outside of the jails, our national rates of COVID-19 deaths are projected to rise by 98% due to infections in jails. Jails act as a revolving door for the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Inhabitants of the jails — both staff and incarcerated persons — come from our communities and soon return to them. Thus, the strategy of social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19 can only be effective if it includes jails, which are a primary vector for the infection. 
On any given day, there are 737,900 people in jail and approximately 66% of them are pretrial detainees — meaning they are presumed innocent and have not been convicted of a crime. Many of them remain incarcerated only because they cannot afford cash bail. Theinfection rate of COVID-19 among people working and incarcerated in New York City jails is five times higher than the infection rate of New York City, six times higher than the infection rate of New York State, and 21 times higher than the infection rate of the U.S. as a whole.
In the age of COVID-19, an arrest could mean a death sentence because there is no way to effectively, safely, or fairly quarantine inside a jail. Jails are particularly vulnerable to rapid and severe outbreaks of COVID-19 because of the frequent movement in and out of jails from detainees and staff; the aggregation of people from a variety of geographic locations; the limited space available for medical isolation; the limited ability to practice disease prevention measures (e.g. handwashing) due to restrictions in access to soap, paper towels, and hand sanitizers; and the inability to social distance given the volume of people and the architectural design of the facilities.
Reducing admissions and releasing people who are currently incarcerated in jails are essential components of a COVID-19 response. This insight led an independent agency that provides oversight to the Department of Corrections (DOC) in New York to conclude that “DOC’s and CHS’s [Correctional Health System] best efforts will not be enough to prevent viral transmission in the jails.” The independent agency asserts that the best way to ensure the health and safety of the population within and outside of the jails is to reduce the number of people in jails.
There are numerous public officials that can play a role in protecting the health and safety of our communities by reducing the jail population during this pandemic. When an Arrest Becomes a Death Sentence identifies the key front-end criminal justice system actors responsible for shaping the jail population and the actions they can take to protect everyone’s health and safety.
To successfully address the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., we must significantly reduce our jail population. Addressing pretrial detention enables us to protect public safety and improves our criminal justice system. These measures can be implemented quickly and will significantly improve safety for the staff and individuals held in jails, and result in a significant improvement in safety for us all.