The Deadly COVID-19 Virus Could Spread Quickly In American Prisons

Kevin Mwanza
Written by Kevin Mwanza

American prisons are on high alert over the spread of coronavirus to inmates and have stepped up screenings and sanitization of jail cells while considering cutting back visits to prevent the pandemic from hitting the prison population.

Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in the U.S. with more than 3,800 infections and 69 deaths reported thus far.

Cash Bail American prisons
The deadly COVID-19 virus could spread quickly in American prisons whose 2.4 million inmates constitute nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. In this photo, inmates buy supplies at Najayo jail’s store in San Cristobal, west of Santo Domingo, May 30, 2007. Image: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

With 2.4 million inmates, the U.S. has nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. It has an ailing prison healthcare system and a large aging subpopulation.

While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisons, it is just a matter of time before the novel coronavirus enters a U.S. prison, says Tyler Winkelman, co-director of the Health, Homelessness, and Criminal Justice Lab at the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute in Minneapolis.

“All prisons and jails should anticipate that the coronavirus will enter their facility, and they need to have plans for monitoring and treating anyone who has symptoms,” Winkelman told The Verge.

Iran, one of the countries that have the highest cases of the disease, temporarily freed about 70,000 prisoners to combat the spread of the coronavirus in jails.

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Jails have for long been the center of disease outbreaks due to the nature of the small cells prisoners are confined in with poor sanitation such as toilets a few feet from their beds. Hand sanitizers are treated as contraband across U.S. jails because they contain alcohol.

There are plans to begin using video systems for visitation at no cost to the inmate and wavering medical copays until further notice, according to the Department of Corrections.