Jails around the country have become a major breeding ground for the coronavirus. And as authorities arrest, book and release thousands of people charged with low-level offenses each day, they are unwittingly unleashing the virus on the outside world.

My colleague Daniel Chen and I found this dynamic at work as people were processed in and out of the Cook County Jail in Chicago, as we reported recently in a study in the journal Health Affairs. The consequences were startling. The cycle of arrests, jailings and releases was the most significant predictor of the spread of the coronavirus in Chicago and the rest of Illinois. Roughly one in six of all cases in the city and state were linked to people who were jailed and released from this single jail, according to data through April 19.

It’s not hard to understand why. People are arrested for low-level crimes, processed through crowded jail spaces where the risk of infection is high and then sent back to their communities, where they inadvertently spread the virus. We found that this churn of arrest, jailing and release was more consequential than race, poverty, population density and public transit as a harbinger of Covid-19 cases.

On average, for each person cycled through Cook County Jail, our research shows that an additional 2.149 cases of Covid-19 appeared in their ZIP code within three to four weeks after the inmate’s discharge. At least 60 percent of these cases were in Black-majority ZIP codes.

The scale of this virus multiplier effect is enormous. Cook County Jail cycles about 100,000 people through its doors every year, approximately 75 percent of them Black. Nationally, some five million people are cycled through jails annually. Before the coronavirus hit, 94 percent of those booked into Cook County Jail were charged with nonviolent offenses.

This jail was the site of one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country. In two months, more than 700 inmates tested positive and seven died. Two corrections officers also died, and hundreds more were infected. Jail officials have taken effective steps to control the epidemic inside the jail. But because of the large number of daily arrests and incarcerations, preventing the spread of the virus outside the jail — because of undetected infections acquired during processing — is extremely difficult.

There is no public safety reason to incarcerate a vast majority of these people, in Cook County or elsewhere. Nonviolent offenses account for 95 percent of the more than 10 million arrests in America every year. Most of these can be effectively and safely managed with citations, summons, community service requirements, food support, mental health referrals, housing and other alternatives to incarceration.

Based on our study in Chicago, it seems clear that standard policing and incarceration policies are driving preventable spread of the virus. These policies are now harming not just inmates and overly policed communities of color but also the rest of America. Infectious disease does not respect segregation or geographic barriers, and the disproportionate sickness and death from the virus that has afflicted minority neighborhoods is now widening. Many emergency medical workers, police officers, health care workers and jail guards have most likely become sick and died because of transmission linked to our national obsession with incarceration as a solution to social problems and crime.

Society’s excessive reliance on arrests and incarcerations is putting jail administrators in impossible positions. Because of the incubation period of the virus and asymptomatic transmissions, efforts in jails to reduce spread, including increased testing at the time of booking, reducing jail populations and better sanitation, are not sufficient to stop the virus. If only one person in these crowded spaces is infected, by the end of processing, more are likely to be.

And with each passing day, more people are being released from jails with the belief that they are negative for the coronavirus when in reality, the virus may have already begun to spread in their bodies. They may soon become infectious to others, particularly family members and close contacts.

To prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths and to reopen the economy, policymakers must act urgently to stop this daily cycling of thousands of people in and out of jails. During a pandemic, issues of criminal justice reform are not partisan matters. To help curb the virus, we must immediately stop arresting and jailing people for nonviolent offenses.

If we fail to do this, the criminal justice system will continue to exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus, leaving death in its wake.

Eric Reinhart is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Harvard and a medical student at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago.

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