Health and Medicine

‘Jails Are Petri Dishes’: Inmates Freed as the Virus Spreads Behind Bars

By Timothy Williams, Benjamin Weiser and

Some jails are releasing people to stem outbreaks, but critics say it is not happening quickly enough to save lives and resources.

The coronavirus is spreading quickly in America’s jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible and sanitizer is widely banned, prompting authorities across the country to release thousands of inmates in recent weeks to try to slow the infection, save lives and preserve medical resources.

Hundreds of Covid-19 diagnoses have been confirmed at local, state and federal correctional facilities — almost certainly an undercount, given a lack of testing and the virus’s rapid spread — leading to hunger strikes in immigrant detention centers and demands for more protection from prison employee unions.

Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, is going through a similar exercise, but has also announced that she will decline to prosecute certain low-level cases, including trespassing, drug possession, prostitution and urinating in public, during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We believe that no longer prosecuting individuals for substance-use disorder or sex work — that’s not going to increase crime,” she said. “The thing that we’re concerned with is public safety, and we don’t want to prescribe someone with substance-use disorder to a death sentence.”

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