America’s jails and prisons are experiencing a rapid spread of COVID-19. 

By July 14, The Marshall Project reported new infections had increased by 13 percent among incarcerated individuals and climbed 9 percent for correctional employees from the previous week. In total, at least 64,119 prisoners and 13,863 prison staff in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19. About 681 incarcerated individuals and 47 correctional employees nationwide have died from coronavirus-related causes. 

Infection rates have been substantially higher in correctional facilities than in the general population, according to a recent research letter published in JAMA.

While comprehensive data of the COVID-19 crisis in U.S. jails and prisons is lacking, it’s clear the unsanitary conditions in these facilities can accelerate disease transmission and endanger public health. As of June 9, 29 of the top 40 coronavirus hotspots in the U.S. were correctional facilities.

There has been growing pressure to reduce the incarcerated population at the state and federal level as a way to prevent further spread. Between March and June, the number of people in state and federal prisons nationwide dropped 8 percent. West Virginia has seen a 10 percent reduction in its total jail population and nearly a 20 percent decrease in its total prison population since the pandemic began. 

However, once people are released from jails and prisons, navigating reentry into society and one’s community often presents its own barriers and uncertainty. In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated people in the United States are unemployed at a rate nearly five times higher than that of the general population.They are also almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. More than half hold only a high school diploma or GED, and a quarter hold no credential at all.

Roughly four in 10 men and six in 10 women released from prison reported a combination of physical health, mental health, and substance abuse conditions. While the majority of returning prisoners expect and receive help from family after their release, about one-fifth of men and a quarter of women do not receive any assistance. 

For those released amid COVID-19, these challenges are amplified significantly. The current public health crisis is perpetuating an ongoing cycle of economic downturn, housing hardships, and job instability that can leave individuals returning from jail and prison unable to achieve successful reintegration. Limited resources during this time inhibit reentry as returning citizens struggle with weakened relationships with family, poor mental and physical health conditions, and inadequate educational experience.

Nonprofits and social services agencies are overwhelmed by demand and lack funding to provide people returning from prison with adequate support. Many have moved online or halted in response to COVID-19, leaving formerly incarcerated individuals helpless as they try to navigate newfound freedom during a global pandemic.

Moreover, for those who encounter several of these obstacles and are unable to adjust to life after prison, they are more likely to recidivate or violate release conditions. Of the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year, over two-thirds are rearrested, half are reconvicted, and 40 percent are returned to custody within three years of release. In 2014, the three-year recidivism rate in West Virginia was about 24 percent. Between 2002 and 2014, most people in the state who returned to prison did so for violating parole.

Broken reentry supports and services are often a catalyst for more criminal behavior and perpetuate an ongoing cycle of incarceration. These circumstances only set formerly incarcerated people up to fail. Now, they could be sent back to correctional settings where they are especially vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak. 

America’s jails and prisons must release more people to reduce the risk of COVID-19 behind bars and in the outside community, but this also requires major reform of the country’s reentry system. We must work to dismantle the inequitable institutions that continue to threaten the lives of formerly incarcerated people. Understanding the challenges of prisoner reentry, and instituting reform that improves the security and well-being of returning citizens, is more critical than ever amid COVID-19.

The fight against recidivism is now. Our country’s jails and prisons have become epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, and massive outbreaks in these facilities pose severe threats to the health of incarcerated people, prison staff, and the general public. Keeping formerly incarcerated people out of prison is necessary to reduce the devastating effects of this global crisis and improve the health and safety of everyone.