In its latest report on prison and jail populations during the pandemic, the Prison Policy Initiative says that the number of people behind bars is returning to pre-pandemic levels or higher. Some 28 percent of jails of a national sample of 415 have higher populations now than in March 2020.
Prison populations are lower than normal, mainly due to what the report calls "technical difficulties" in sending people to prison. However, states have released fewer people from prisons in 2020 and 2021 than previous years, with only New Jersey and North Carolina conducting large-scale prison releases.
As the contagious Omicron variant ravages many areas and overruns hospitals completely overrun, nearly three-fourths of prisons are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. Incarcerated people with conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous are still in serious danger.
In state and federal prisons, over 2,900 people have died of COVID-19, almost 476,000 have been infected, and thousands of cases are linked to county jails. As more than 75 percent of people in the U.S. have received at least one vaccine dose, correctional staff hesitate to be vaccinated and prison systems are slow to roll out boosters to inmates.
Public health officials still recommend reducing prison populations as a primary method of risk reduction. Despite the clear need for smaller confined populations, with just a few exceptions, state and local authorities are allowing their prison and jail populations to return to dangerous, pre-pandemic levels.
Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and inmates' increased health care needs.
Although California has reduced the state prison population by about 18 percent since the start of the pandemic, it has not been enough to prevent large COVID outbreaks in prisons, and the state has seen a 300 percent rise in infections of inmates in the past few weeks, an a 212 percent increase in staff cases.
Jail populations are lower now than they were pre-pandemic. Initially, many local officials — including sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges — responded quickly to COVID-19 and reduced their jail populations.
In a national sample of 415 county jails of varying sizes, almost all decreased their populations from March to May of 2020, resulting in an average change of a 33 percent population decrease across all 415 jails at the start of COVID-19.
These population reductions came as the result of policy changes including police issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts reducing cash bail amounts, and jail administrators releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent” offenses.
Those early-pandemic, common-sense policy changes didn’t last long, the report says. Between May 2020 and February 2021, the populations of 83 percent of the jails in the sample increased, reversing course from the earlier months of the pandemic.
The jail data suggest that early reforms to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned.