March 18th, 2022Amanda Klonsky, Hope Johnson, and Lauren Woyczynski

Failure to Decarcerate Jails Has Led to Unnecessary Deaths and Widespread Infection During Omicron Surge

In recent weeks, our team has taken a close look at the impacts of the Omicron COVID surge in state and federal prisons, as well as in ICE detention centers. We found that in the past few weeks and months, many of these facilities have seen their highest reported numbers ever.

Unfortunately, this trend has held in jails as well. The available data show that, since the Omicron variant first appeared in the United States, case numbers in local and county jails across the United States have similarly increased rapidly, leaving people held in jails at heightened risk of infection and death from the virus once again. 

The jails from which we collect data have reported 10 deaths of detained people between December 1, 2021, and March 4, 2022. Six of these reported deaths occurred in Texas jails: two at Harris County Jail, two at Bexar County, one at Dallas County Jail, and one at Bell County Jail. California jails reported the deaths of four detained people: two in Los Angeles County Jail and two in Sacramento County Jail. In addition, Chicago’s Cook County Jail has reported the COVID death of an employee.

The actual toll is likely much higher. Jails typically operate with even less oversight than state and federal prisons, and, during the pandemic, have operated with characteristically little transparency. The crisis of transparency has only worsened as the pandemic has continued: of the nearly 200 jail systems for which we have collected COVID data during the pandemic, only 56, holding among them just 13% of the estimated 550,000 people detained in jails nationally, continue to report COVID data into 2022.

Of the 16 states represented in our collection of COVID jails data, Texas, California, and Illinois saw the largest numbers of infections and deaths during the Omicron surge. We review the impact of the Omicron surge in these systems below. 

California: The Los Angeles County Jail 

The risk of COVID infection in the L.A. County Jail reached an all-time high during the Omicron outbreak, both for those in custody and for staff. At its peak in mid-January of 2022, the county jail system saw roughly 630 active COVID infections among detained people, resulting in more than 30% of the total detained population being placed in quarantine. 

In the past six weeks alone, roughly 2,000 people detained there have tested positive for COVID. That number represents about one-quarter of all the COVID cases detected inside since the start of the pandemic. 

The most recent COVID deaths occurred in mid-February and late January of 2022, bringing the total number of people who have died of COVID in the L.A. County Jail over the course of the pandemic to at least 18.  

The recent COVID case surge is also impacting staff: since December 1st, 2021, 1,467 staff members have reportedly tested positive for COVID. 

The L.A. County Jail is not alone in seeing cases spike: in January 2022, many other county jails across California also reported a sharp rise in COVID cases among detained people and staff. Collectively, since December 1, 2021, the eight county jails in California for which we collect data have reported 6,469 confirmed COVID cases, with the Los Angeles County Jail, Sacramento County Jail, Santa Rita Jail, and the San Diego County Jail posting the largest increases in active cases. 

Illinois: The Cook County Jail

Since December 1, 2021, at least 577 incarcerated people and 989 staff in the Cook County Jail have been infected with COVID. In January, a member of its staff died of the virus. 

In November and December, the number of COVID cases among detained people reported by the jail began increasing rapidly: in the first week of January, 418 active cases were reported among incarcerated people, representing about 5% of the total jail population.

In April 2020, Cook County responded to an outbreak of roughly 300 active cases by releasing 25% of detainees to decrease crowding. However, by January of 2022, the jail population had returned to pre-pandemic rates. This bounce-back in population numbers is part of a larger trend in jails and prisons.  

Texas Jails

The Texas Justice Initiative (TJI) recorded 63 COVID deaths among people detained in Texas jails throughout the pandemic, with six new deaths reported in Harris County, Dallas County, Bexar County, and Bell County Jails during the national Omicron surges.

Just two jails in Texas – the Smith and Travis County Jails –  still actively report COVID data through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Smith County Jail saw a COVID outbreak among staff, reaching a peak of 59 active cases on January 27th, 2022, the largest number of cases seen among staff in this facility at any point in the pandemic. 

Though Tarrant County Jail does not regularly report active case data, on January 3rd, Tarrant County Jails’ Facebook page reported 179 active cases of COVID among detained people, representing about a quarter of the jail’s population. 

Additional Texas jail data on COVID infections during the height of Omicron is sparse. For the first 15 months of the pandemic, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), the state’s jail oversight agency, published daily updates on active COVID cases and the number of people in quarantine, as well as active cases and quarantine among staff in Texas jails. However, in June 2021, the agency abruptly stopped this practice, citing the need to repurpose staff to perform other functions. As a result, we – and the general public – remain largely in the dark as to the impact of Omicron on those living and working inside Texas jails.

Decarcerate jails to slow the spread of COVID

During the earliest waves of the pandemic, many counties and jail systems saw the impacts of COVID behind bars and responded with significant decarceration measures. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people held in local jails dropped 25 percent from mid-2019 to mid-2020, and 2020 saw about 1.6 million fewer jail admissions than did 2019. These efforts at decarceration offered increased protection to medically vulnerable people. Research has shown that these reductions were associated with a reduction in daily COVID case count rates in and outside jails. 

However, as the pandemic wore on, most of these jurisdictions have largely abandoned their efforts to reduce jail populations. In the months before the Omicron variant entered into circulation, jail populations were already climbing again toward pre-pandemic levels. The Vera Institute of Justice found that from mid-year 2020 to spring 2021, jail populations increased by about 13 percent. The increases were especially notable in some large jurisdictions: during that time, jail populations increased by 27 percent in L.A. County, 24 percent in Cook County, and 40 percent in New York City.

The post-Omicron COVID jail data makes clear that these reversals back to early decarceration trends were reckless and endangered the health of incarcerated people: increases in jail populations created conditions ripe for large outbreaks from new variants, as occured with Omicron. This precedent suggests that we will see additional large waves of infection in jails as new variants emerge. 

All state and local officials with the authority to reduce the size of the incarcerated population should re-prioritize reducing the number of people in confinement and expanding testing and vaccination efforts. Doing so is a necessary step to protect everyone living and working in carceral facilities, as well as the general public, against current and future COVID waves.

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April 7th, 2022

UPDATE: Data Reporting & Quality Scorecard, Round 6

A year ago, we launched our Data Reporting and Quality Scorecards to assess COVID data reporting and quality by carceral agencies. We're updating our scorecards again to reflect the current realities of COVID data reporting behind bars. This round, 49 of 53 agencies received a failing score – the most ever.