This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
As the world scrambles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard experts across the University are trying to help one of the most vulnerable populations survive the crisis.
More than 75 faculty members from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School sent a letter Tuesday to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker urging him to reduce the state’s incarcerated population, a group that could be particularly subject to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
The letter outlined 15 recommendations, including requiring correctional facility administrators to make their plans for prevention and management of coronavirus outbreaks publicly available; expedited consideration of parole or release of inmates age 50 and older and those with chronic, potentially complicating conditions; and testing of inmates and corrections staff who become ill.
“This pandemic is shedding a bright light on the interconnection of all members of society. Jails, prisons, and other detention facilities are not separate; they are a part of our community,” the letter read. “As experts in public health and medicine, we believe these steps are essential to support the health of incarcerated individuals, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our society; the vital personnel who work in prisons and jail; and all people in the state of Massachusetts.”
According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 1.5 million people were in prison, and approximately 750,000 people were being held in county and city jails in 2017. Taken together, the figures make the U.S. the world’s leader in incarceration.
The nation is also faced with an aging prison population, with many older inmates suffering from underlying conditions that put them at the greatest risk for the severe complications associated with COVID-19. In recent weeks officials and advocates across the country have been calling for the release of those who are ill or elderly or those who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses as a way to slow the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments in a petition by the state’s public defenders, various district attorneys, and the ACLU of Massachusetts, among others, seeking the release of vulnerable inmates and pretrial detainees.
Add to those voices that of Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, who supports the release of certain inmates and says that the current crisis reflects the history of the nation’s unfair treatment of those too long considered “outcasts.”