It’s nearly impossible to socially distance in prison and jail, so as the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Iowans in March, the ACLU and 25 other organizations called for rapid “decarceration,” that is, allowing as many people as reasonably possible to avoid or leave jails or prisons to friends, family, and other safer environments.
At the prison level, we asked for releasing people who were slated to leave in the next 1 to 2 years, those who were held on relatively minor charges, or people whose health conditions made them especially vulnerable to the disease.
At the county jail level, we asked for reforms to policing, arrest, bail, charging, and sentencing that would reduce the number of people going into jails in the first place and allow many of those in jail to get out. We applaud state and local leadership for responding. While further action is needed, in particular by Iowa prisons, important steps were taken to reduce incarceration in our state to protect public health.
Iowa’s jail populations vary daily, but overall, compared to pre-COVID-19 populations, the number of people in Iowa’s jails has been significantly reduced, and prison populations, while remaining beyond capacity, are also declining. The Iowa state prison population has been reduced about 10 percent, primarily because of early parole and a halt to most incoming transfers from county jails.
At the county level, many of the larger jails are reporting reductions of between 25 and 50 percent. This keeps not only the people who were released safer from COVID-19, but also protects people who remain incarcerated, staff, and surrounding communities.
There's still much work for jails and prisons to do. Advocacy and legal organizations have received numerous complaints from inmates and their loved ones about the lack of sanitation and hygiene supplies and the lack of even the slight social distancing that could reasonably take place in a jail or prison. State prisons are still—even after significant reductions—over capacity. The state DOC, Board of Parole, and Governor’s Office should be releasing far more low-risk prisoners.
And now that the state has started to open up, even though we continue to see many new cases of the virus daily, it’s important that our public officials double down on efforts to reduce inmate populations and to keep those who are not released as safe as possible.