At the start of the pandemic, public health and medical officials were already warning that incarcerated people would be uniquely vulnerable to the spread of the disease and its most serious medical consequences, due to their close quarters and high rates of preexisting health conditions. But after a year and a half of outbreak after outbreak in prisons and jails, correctional authorities have largely failed to reduce their populations enough to protect the health and lives of those who are incarcerated. The consequences of this failure are serious: According to the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Project, more than 412,000 people incarcerated in prisons have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 2,700 people have died from COVID-19 behind bars. And that’s to say nothing of the outbreaks in surrounding communities that have been linked to the crowded, unsanitary conditions of prisons and jails.

Despite the growing availability of vaccines, 17 state prison systems and the Bureau of Prisons had vaccinated less than half of their incarcerated populations by mid-May 2021, and 20 states and the Bureau of Prisons are reporting that less than half of their prison staff had received their first dose of a vaccine by the end of April. With slow uptake of vaccines, the advice from early in the pandemic continues to be the most important: prisons and jails need to keep working to reduce the number of people locked up, by both reducing admissions and ramping up early releases.

Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and increased health care requirements. For example, although California has reduced the state prison population by about 19% in the past 18 months, it has not been enough to prevent large COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prisons. In fact, as of June 16th, 2021, California’s prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 107% of their design capacity (and up from 103% in January 2021).

Read the full article about COVID-19 and decarceration by Emily Widra at Prison Policy Initiative.