Series: Covid-19

Responding to COVID-19: Focusing on People in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Systems

Logan Schmidt Former Federal Policy Associate
Mar 23, 2020

As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, skyrocket in the United States, we are just beginning to see cases in jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities. These populations are uniquely vulnerable because of the crowding typical inside facilities, the lack of adequate health care and access to soap and hand sanitizer, and the number of people who have medical conditions that can make them more susceptible to infection. But we have yet to see a national policy or even a proposal to address this brewing crisis from our federal government or any of the presidential campaigns.

People who are incarcerated at the following facilities have already tested positive: the Rikers Island jail complex and the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City; the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow, New York; the Larimer County Community Corrections program in Fort Collins, Colorado; the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater; the California State Prison in Los Angeles County; and the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana. Possible cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, and at the District of Columbia Jail. Correctional staff are known to have tested positive in Alabama, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Washington State. The numbers will be outdated before this post goes up on our blog. Unless measures are taken soon to decarcerate facilities throughout the country, the numbers will grow exponentially. Inaction will have grave consequences.

To draw attention to concerns about the virus spreading in particularly vulnerable communities, Vera and Community Oriented Correctional Health Services have published a series of five fact sheets focusing on the immigration system; jails, prisons, and immigration detention and youth facilities; police and law enforcement; parole, probation, and clemency; and prosecutors, defenders, and courts. The fact sheets provide guidance to help protect anyone who interacts with and works in these systems, and they can serve as a blueprint for national policy. Millions of people have contact with the criminal legal systems every year. Many are at greater risk of contracting the virus and suffering the worst outcomes, and we must change local, state, and federal policies as soon as possible.

Each of the fact sheets provides guidance and policy recommendations, including these:

Prioritize prevention first and foremost.

  • Limit the use of law enforcement in responding to low-risk incidents and divert more calls for service to mental health resources when they do not require police response; prosecutors should decline to prosecute low-level offenses; and corrections officials should use their authority to release as many people as possible from their custody.
  • Issue a temporary order by ICE to halt all immigration raids to decrease the number of people in detention; and release all people in ICE detention, prioritizing people who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, such as those older than 55, pregnant women, and people with serious chronic medical conditions.
  • Follow the same protocols and parameters as described above; corrections authorities should work with the courts to release people who are in jail or prison and are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.
  • Create and distribute a policy to temporarily suspend any incarceration to jail or prison for technical violations of probation or parole, and indefinitely suspend collection of supervision fees to accommodate for lost wages.

Reduce the possibility of spread.

  • Use a CDC-informed screening tool for all people entering detention and staff, to identify those who have had possible exposure and those at higher risk of infection.
  • Release everyone in ICE custody immediately. Prosecutors should consent to release and should not request bail except for cases in which there is a specific and immediate risk to the physical safety of another person.
  • Provide free phone and video calls and increase access to videoconferencing and other measures—especially when facilities cannot avoid limiting visitation—so that incarcerated people can maintain contact with their loved ones and attorneys until in-person visits resume. This should include the use of videoconferencing to expedite the clemency review process.
  • Provide free hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap to all people in custody and replenish several times a week. Increase the frequency of sanitation of all detention facilities, patrol cars, police precincts, courtrooms, and any other space with high traffic.
  • Avoid use of lockdown as a first response and continue programming, classes, jobs, and recreational activities to the extent possible.

Respond swiftly to active coronavirus cases while preserving due process.

  • Develop a written policy and training for corrections staff, law enforcement, court staff, and other personnel to separate people who are symptomatic from those who are not, and to maximize the distance between people at higher risk of infection from those who may be infected but asymptomatic.
  • Designate separate rooms or areas within detention facilities and housing areas for people in custody who exhibit symptoms of coronavirus infection. Using cells designated for solitary confinement is not acceptable.
  • Develop a comprehensive policy that provides paid sick leave and a plan for staffing substitutions and triage when personnel test positive for coronavirus.

Vera will publish additional fact sheets, which you can find on our COVID-19 Response page. Tomorrow we will publish information about smaller cities and rural areas, and about the youth justice system. Each fact sheet lists resources for more information.