Coronavirus Could Claim 100,000 More Lives Than Expected if Jail Populations Are Not Reduced, Study Finds

The coronavirus pandemic could claim the lives of as many as 100,000 more people in the U.S. than current projections estimate if jail populations are not "dramatically and immediately reduced," a new epidemiological model released by the American Civil Liberties Union warns.

Published on Wednesday, the ACLU model analyzed data from more than 1,200 midsize and large jail systems across the country, with the facilities' surrounding communities accounting for 90 percent of the U.S. population.

It found that even if communities across the U.S. continue practicing social distancing measures and following public health guidance, the country would still experience substantially higher death rates if no action is taken to reduce jail populations.

According to Lucia Tian, the American Civil Liberties Union's chief analytics officer, current epidemiological models are failing to take into account U.S. incarceration rates and the absence of social distancing in jails.

"I think we always knew the impact would be substantial, but...coming out with this result, there was certainly an element of surprise at how large it is," Tian said of the model, which was developed by Dr. Nina Fefferman at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Eric Lofgren at Washington State University, and Dr. Kristian Lum from the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with Aaron Horowitz and Brooke Madubuonwu of the ACLU's data analytics team and other ACLU experts.

Tian told Newsweek, "The model does reflect what happens in real life."

"Mass incarceration was a public health crisis before COVID-19, but the pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point and we're never going to be able to end this pandemic until we begin addressing the role that mass incarceration plays," Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU's Justice Division told Newsweek.

With the U.S. being the largest incarcerator in the world, there are nearly 740,000 people in jail in the country on any given day, Ofer said. "A person is admitted into jail every three seconds," he said. Further, about 40 percent of all people who are incarcerated suffer from at least one chronic health condition, including diabetes and asthma, making them vulnerable to COVID-19.

As a result, Ofer warned that if governments and law enforcement bodies do not act, the revolving doors of jails could play a key role in helping coronavirus continue to spread.

"The time is now for governors, prosecutors, police sheriffs and the President of the United States to act decisively and swiftly to reduce jail populations across the United States," Ofer said.

The ACLU Justice Division director said that the civil liberties union is calling not only for the release of inmates who have not committed serious crimes, but also for police to reduce arrests for low-level offenses.

Putting bold reforms in place to reduce arrests by 50 percent, the ACLU has said, could save as many as 12,000 lives in jails and 47,000 in surrounding communities.

Meanwhile, "aggressive action and policy change could save as many as 23,000 people in jail and 76,000 in the broader community if we stop arrests for anything but the five percent of crimes defined as most serious by the FBI—including murder, rape, and aggravated assault—and double the rate of release for those already detained," the ACLU said in a press release.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the ACLU and state affiliates have filed more than 25 legal actions aimed at reducing populations in jails, prisons and detention centers.

So far, at least 16,000 people have been released from jails and prisons or have not been brought into the criminal legal system due to those efforts, the ACLU has said.

States that have released detainees and made efforts to enhance social distancing and access to sanitation have likely helped curb the spread of COVID-19 the civil liberties union has said.

"Colorado, for example, has so far achieved a 31 percent reduction in jail population," the ACLU said. "Our model found this likely will save 1,100 lives—reducing total lives lost in the state by 25 percent."

The words 'help we matter 2' are seen written in a window at the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC), housing one of the nation's largest jails, is seen in Chicago, Illinois, on April 9, 2020. The jail has seen a sweeping surge in coronavirus cases. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty