The Bail Project Urges Jail Releases Amid Coronavirus Spread

The Bail Project Urges Jail Releases Amid Coronavirus Spread

The Bail Project  /  COVID-19

Pandemic could create a humanitarian crisis in jails if officials don’t act quickly.

March 13, 2020 – As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the world, we are urging county jails to undertake all possible measures to prevent the spread of infection. An outbreak of COVID-19 in any jail would be swift and deadly, and now is the time for decisive preventative measures.

COVID-19 poses severe infection risks whenever people are in close physical proximity with others, regardless of whether an individual shows symptoms. People in jail are unable to distance themselves from others and take other necessary preventative measures. Jails will not have the capacity to contain the spread of infection if they are filled near or beyond capacity. This threatens everyone incarcerated in a jail, along with their loved ones, jail staff, and public health infrastructure at large.

The safest way to ensure that any jail does not become a vector for COVID-19’s spread is to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. This is particularly imperative for anyone who a judge has already approved for release pending payment of money bail or anyone who would be released but for a technical parole, probation, or warrant violation. Release is also crucial for those who are elderly, immunocompromised, pregnant, medically fragile, or otherwise particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In contrast to reducing jail populations, restrictive measures such as segregation and lockdowns cannot be expected to contain infection. The constant population turnover will compromise any effort to contain COVID-19, especially since everyone who is infected and contagious might not show symptoms. Restrictive measures could also discourage incarcerated people from reporting symptoms or seeking care.

The Bail Project has posted bail for over 10,000 people who then returned to court without any need for detention, even though their bail amount would otherwise have kept them incarcerated. We know from this experience that reducing the jail population to protect public health will be safe, lawful, and just.

Every time a county introduces another person to the jail environment, it is increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 among the incarcerated population, jail staff, and the broader community. We are urging jails to undertake all possible avenues for limiting that peril, including:

  1. Release people on personal recognizance. Exposing people to potential infection because they cannot afford a cash bond threatens the safety of the community by exacerbating a growing pandemic. Going forward, judges should consider that factor release on personal recognizance all people charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Judges should also reconsider custody status for anyone whose incarceration will make them vulnerable to infection.
  2. Cite and release people charged with misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. To preserve resources and prevent infection, sheriff’s deputies should issue citations and a notice to appear for everyone charged with misdemeanors or gross demeanors.
  3. Prioritize immediate release for people who are most vulnerable. Older adults and those with serious medical conditions and fragility face a higher risk for infection. The conditions that can increase one’s risk of infection include diabetes, heart disease, asthma, lung disease, and HIV.1 These conditions are more common among those who are incarcerated than the general population.2 Releasing these vulnerable groups from jail immediately will avoid the need to provide complex medical care within the jail or transfer people to hospitals where capacity may be stretched thin.
  4. Reduce release conditions and restrictions. Courts must consider whether a release will interfere with people’s ability to seek necessary medical screening and treatment as well as the ability to protect and care for any loved ones who may be impacted or vulnerable. No one should be forced to choose between violating a release condition or protecting their health and the health of others. Judges should also ensure that people released are not required to appear in person for check-ins and non-essential court proceedings where infection could spread.
  5. Protect meaningful access to legal counsel and other pretrial support. Jails must avoid any restrictive measures that interfere with a person’s ability to obtain legal and other support to advance their case. For example, The Bail Project’s staff conduct interviews of people detained in jail before providing bail assistance in their case. Restricting this access will mean that more people will remain detained on unnecessary cash bail, increasing their risk of infection. If visitor and legal access to the jail is in any way restricted or endangered, the jail should take steps to release people who cannot afford their bail amount.
  6. Ensure care and hygiene for people who remain incarcerated. The jail must follow changing public health protocols and coordinate with public health experts to communicate with staff and people in custody about preventative measures; provide adequate access to hygiene; and provide immediate testing and treatment to those who exhibit signs of infection. Access to care and hygiene must be made free, without commissary spending, co-pays, fees, or any other costs that could discourage prevention and treatment.

These sensible steps will protect the public from outbreaks, while continued mass detention will not. At this time, The Bail Project is coordinating with local community partners and advocates on additional proposals for protecting the community. We know this pandemic presents a range of challenges, and we are committed to ensuring the community’s safety and health. We are urging jails nationwide to take necessary action to save lives.

In cities where The Bail Project currently operates, we are contacting court and city officials and urging them to take action:


We are also joining with local partners as they make similar demands:


Moments like this demand solidarity. Together with our community partners and supporters, we’ll do everything in our power to ensure those in jail are not left behind as our nation braces for the full impact of this pandemic.

If you would like to contact your city officials to demand immediate action to protect incarcerated people, use this action page.