Stemming the tide of COVID-19 among those who are incarcerated saves lives inside and outside prison walls.
In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health officials are stressing the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. But for millions of people in America’s jails and prisons, social distancing is not an option. And medical experts are sounding the alarm of an additional public health disaster waiting to happen.
Josiah Rich, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine and of epidemiology, is co-author of a recent essay in the New England Journal of Medicine urging immediate action to mitigate mass outbreaks of COVID-19 behind bars. Among the authors’ recommendations is the immediate release of prisoners who are unlikely to commit further crimes, as well as those who are elderly or ill. Doing so will free up precious space to enable facilities to better manage the remaining population in the event of an outbreak.
Taking no action, Rich says, will not only endanger thousands of lives among incarcerated populations, but poses a dire threat to everyone by further overtaxing health care systems. Last Friday, the Rhode Island Supreme Court cleared the way for 52 prisoners in the Ocean State, but Rich says that further action nationwide is required.
“When these people get sick, they’re going to get sick all at once,” says Rich, a practicing infectious diseases specialist at The Miriam Hospital. “That means there’s likely to be a large spike in people coming from corrections to the surrounding health care facilities. We can ill afford to have local health care systems overrun by a wave of people coming from the correctional setting. The consequences of that are dire.”