The Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition (IHRC) hosted an online panel discussing carceral institutions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethan Rogers, research associate in the Crime and Justice Policy Research Program, and Christopher Buresh, senior research fellow in the Transportation and Vehicle Safety Policy Research Program, were two of the panelists along with other experts. The webinar can be viewed here on IHRC's Facebook page now, and at a later date on IHRC's website.
Jails and prisons have long been identified as community spaces that are at increased risk for infectious disease transmission. Physical (and social) distancing are oftentimes impossible in carceral settings, and people in these settings exist in close proximity to one another. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought heightened attention to the living conditions in jails and prisons. While COVID-19 cases are not expected to peak in Iowa until early to mid May, carceral institutions in other states have become the pandemic's epicenter. New York City's jails have the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world, with 9.1% of Rikers Island residents testing positive as of April 20, 2020.
Since early March, many Iowa counties have taken significant steps to reduce jail crowding and promote social distancing within court houses. On April 18 the first resident of Iowa's prison system tested positive for COVID-19, leading Governor Kim Reynolds' office to implement a series of new preventive measures for Iowa prison facilities. Strategies implemented at the state and local levels seek to prevent outbreaks from occurring in Iowa's county facilities and reduce the number of law enforcement personnel, jail staff, incarcerated individuals, and criminal justice system professionals from contracting the virus and then spreading it into the community. But with Iowa's projected COVID-19 peak still weeks away, some public health and health care professionals remain concerned regarding the preparedness of Iowa's jails and prisons to adequately address the pandemic. This speculation is due in part to wide variation across Iowa's 99 counties in measures implemented to prevent COVID-19 transmission in criminal justice settings. Despite few cases documented in Iowa prisons, some public health officials suggest that more action from the governor's office is needed to prevent the spread of the pandemic in state facilities.
This webinar featured law enforcement officials, public health experts, elected officials, non-profit leaders, journalists, and healthcare providers from multiple Iowa communities. Speakers discussed the steps being taken to prevent COVID-19 transmission in Iowa's jails and prisons and highlight areas where further action is needed. This webinar was recorded and a written summary with key recommendations for next steps will be disseminated.