Note: This article first appeared at In Public Safety.
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Prisons and jails around the world are facing a growing threat due to the coronavirus crisis. Social distancing is often not possible within prison walls especially as many prisons exceed their inmate capacities. As a result, the spread of the coronavirus is a major threat among this vulnerable population.
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According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, of the 2,700 coronavirus tests performed across the prison system, “nearly 2,000 have come back positive.” That is over 70 percent, suggesting that that there are many more undetected coronavirus cases in the U.S. prison system.
One possible solution is early release for nonviolent offenders.
“A total of approximately 16,622 inmates nationwide have been released due to the coronavirus outbreak. The majority were being held on non-violent charges or were deemed to pose no immediate threat to society if released,” Fox News explained.
Measures to Prevent Spread during Coronavirus Crisis
Different steps have been taken to address this issue. In many countries prison visitations are no longer allowed. The aim is to prevent the coronavirus from entering the prison from outside.
In the United States, some inmates have been released early to reduce the prison population and lower the coronavirus crisis. However, this strategy can present a danger to the community.
For example, in Florida, an inmate named Joseph Williams, a convicted felon with 35 previous arrests, was released early. Williams was one of 164 inmates who were released from two jails within Hillsborough County due to concerns about the coronavirus crisis.
The following day Williams was arrested “and charged with second-degree murder, resisting an officer, being felon in possession of a firearm and possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia,” Newsweek magazine reported, citing the Tampa Bay Times.
The Los Angeles Times reported that thousands of inmates have been released from county jails following the April 13 Judicial Council emergency order that resulted in bail being set at zero for those arrested for low-level crimes.
But as the Times noted: “Two men who were released from jails in California because of the coronavirus outbreak were rearrested and accused of committing crimes shortly after being freed.” One of the jails had 16 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. One inmate was arrested in around 40 minutes for carjacking and the other inmate was arrested in less than a week for arson charges, which involved setting a total of nine fires.
Nearly 4,000 inmates have been released from Illinois prisons since March 1, WREX channel 13 reported, including, 64 who were convicted of murder.
How Will Release Strategy Affect Crime Rates?
This release strategy is likely to result in an increase in crime once current quarantine restrictions are relaxed. The restrictions may result in less of a crime spike immediately following their release, but historical recidivism rates indicate that there is a high likelihood of re-offending. In a nine-year study by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, five in six state prisoners – or 83 percent – who were released were re-arrested at least once.
Other prisons and jails around the world are facing a similar crisis. For example, the pandemic has crippled Latin America’s prisons, which also are struggling due to gang control, limited financial resources, and overcrowding. Over the past month in addition to the coronavirus pandemic, prisons in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have been rocked by riots, gang violence, and mass escapes.
In Peru, some inmates’ demand for coronavirus testing has led to instability inside the prisons. In March, an uprising in a prison in Argentina over health conditions resulted in the death of five inmates. Brazil, which has the third largest prison population in the world, is holding twice as many inmates as the prisons were designed for. In addition, the facilities are plagued with disease. HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis are rampant. Inmates’ risk of tuberculosis infection is 30 times greater than that of the general population. The coronavirus only exacerbates the health emergency that already exists in Brazil’s prisons.
Prisons around the world are facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the coronavirus crisis. To the extent possible, it is essential to improve prison infrastructure to provide more space for social distancing. Equally important is to be proactive in isolating inmates who either test positive for coronavirus or who display flu-like symptoms.
Governments have a responsibility to ensure that prisons have the funding necessary to provide staff and inmates with personal protective equipment, as well as the financial resources to expand the prison infrastructure.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has had speaking engagements in the United States, Europe, and Central America on the topic of human trafficking, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, and some of the most pressing issues facing policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019.
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