Virus outbreaks in jails don’t stay within walls, WSU study finds

Eric Lofgren

PULLMAN — COVID-19 outbreaks in jails likely exacerbate the spread in nearby communities — particularly among jail staff — according to a study recently released by Washington State University.

According to WSU assistant professor Eric Lofgren, who helped lead the study, outbreaks in jails are typically “much, much faster and much, much worse,” than in the general community.

Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist by training, said the higher infection rate in jails is likely because of the simple fact jails tend to pack a lot of people into a relatively small space.

Lofgren said because the coronavirus can spread like wildfire in these tight-knit incarcerated populations, jail staff are at extreme risk of picking up infection and then spreading it to their families and communities. What’s more, he said, jails, unlike prisons, are only meant to hold people for a short amount of time. He noted plenty of people spend a few days in jail before being released simply because they couldn’t afford bail at the time of their arrest.

“Most of the incarcerated population that are in jails are members of the communities who are going to be returning to the community,” Lofgren said. “There’s this idea of, ‘Well, we can’t let a bunch of criminals out’ — a bunch of these people aren’t who we would conceptualize as criminals. … No one should get COVID because they can’t afford bail.”

Lofgren said he and his research partners came away from the study with a couple of key recommendations to help keep jail populations low. First, he said, local prosecutors and law enforcement should consider diverting low-level offenders from going to jail in the first place. He said if people accused of things like drug possession aren’t incarcerated, it eliminates their chances of picking up the disease while in jail and bringing it back into the community.

Lofgren said another strategy would be to speed people’s release from jail — particularly those who would be released anyway if they could afford bail. While it may seem counterintuitive to release people who may be infected into their wider communities, Lofgren said his research shows such a move would actually reduce the rate of infection in those communities. He said it would also allow jail staff to take steps to limit outbreaks among those still incarcerated.

“If we release those people, one of the other things that it does is it reduces the number of people in jail, which means you can spread out the people who are still in jail,” he said. “You have a less dense population, so you can start doing things like social distancing, you can start doing things like staggering when people have their meal times.”

Simply put, Lofgren said, people are more likely to pick up the disease while in jail and jails are poorly suited for practicing social distancing, and the wider community is not as insulated from outbreaks among incarcerated populations as they may think. While former prisoners may carry the disease with them when they leave jail, he said these people will have a much easier time practicing self-isolation and other recommendations for containing the disease if they’re at home.

“All of those things are about keeping people from being in confined, crowded areas — and a jail is inherently a confined, crowded space,” Lofgren said. “It’s sort of this super-spreading event that we just have sitting here in our population and we need to think about how to deal with that.”

Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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