COVID-19 in Jails
As of February 2021, there have been at least 381,462 cases of COVID-19 in prisons and 2,419 deaths nationwide. The detrimental impact of the pandemic knows no bounds, and has become especially harmful for those living in close, population-dense quarters. Because of these prison conditions, jails have become a COVID superspreader impacting incarcerated individuals, staff, and surrounding communities. Both prison staff and inmates are high risk populations. In Lehigh County, 304 inmates and 97 staff members have contracted the virus. An inmate and a corrections officer have died. Although Lehigh County implemented a jail reduction program to reduce the spread, the number of incarcerated individuals at the jail is now higher than when the pandemic began. Northampton County, which successfully reduced its prison population, reports a lower number of cases. As of December 15th the number of inmates who tested positive tripled in a two-week timeframe. In total, 171 inmates and 50 staff members have tested positive for the virus, with no COVID deaths.
This is a public health emergency. LVJI proposes two action steps to combat the virus. For the health and safety of our entire community, we must prioritize the vaccination of inmates. Additionally, we must end cash bail for low level offenses. Inmates for which our proposed no-cash bail policy does not apply must be vaccinated. Both our jails and community at large are at risk. For example, a vaccinated corrections officer can still carry the virus without symptoms, passing it on to family members and the community. This creates a community health crisis. When incarcerated individuals are not vaccinated, they run greater risk of infection, ultimately passing on the virus to others, including staff. These staff members can unknowingly carry the virus home. The only way to solve this problem is by fully vaccinated inmates and staff. This is not a political decision, but rather a public health decision to protect our entire community.
LVJI stands firm in its resolve to immediately end cash bail for low level, nonviolent offenses. Cash bail criminalizes poverty, nobody should be in jail solely because they do not have the financial resources to post cash bail. By eliminating cash bail, less people will be admitted to our jails, therefore decreasing population spread of the virus. In these unprecedented times, we must end this unlawful criminalization. While cash bail has always perpetuated socioeconomic inequities in the system, it now has the potential to be deadly in the presence of COVID.