Early research from a UW-Madison professor suggests Dane County Sheriff’s Office efforts to reduce the jail population amid the coronavirus pandemic was critical to flattening the curve of infection.
John Eason, an associate professor of sociology and founder and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Justice Lab, has partnered with the county’s Criminal Justice Council to study the effect of jail population reduction on the cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“The decarceration efforts that you set forth back in January, February and March really paid off for reducing and flattening the curve within the county jail,” Eason said, addressing members of the Criminal Justice Council on July 23.
As cases of COVID-19 began to spread in the community, the sheriff’s office reduced the jail population with methods such as releasing inmates on GPS monitoring. In April, the sheriff’s office decided to test across the agency after four inmates in the same pod contracted the virus. At that time, six deputies had also tested positive for COVID-19.
Other agencies — the district attorney’s office, circuit court system, public defender’s office, Madison Police Department and Wisconsin Department of Corrections — involved with the criminal justice system altered their practices in response to the pandemic.
“This could not have happened without everybody in the criminal justice system, our front line law enforcement, partners at DOC and our judges, all working together to keep the numbers down, so we did not have a significant spike of COVID,” Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said.
The jail is considered full when 789 inmates are housed in the county's facilities and at the beginning of May, there were about 450 inmates at the jail. As of July 31, the jail was housing 505 inmates.
Eason, who studies links between race, health, punishment and inequality in community processes, used a method called backcasting to determine what the state of infection would have been like in the jail without population reductions.
As of May 31, there were 52 cases in the jail among inmates. With a population at the time of approximately 378, that would mean the jail had an estimated 14% rate of infection. With a population of 644 in mid-March, Eason estimates there would have been closer to 90 cases of COVID-19 in the jail.
“If they didn't decarcerate, there would be a lot more people with COVID,” Eason said.
Given that the virus spreads by droplets and that the primary mode of transmission for it is through close contact from person-to-person, it would make sense that more people would be infected if the jail population were higher.
For example, one infected person in one of the large dormitory-style housing pods in the Public Safety Building would compromise up to 49 other inmates in addition to deputies who work with that unit. In addition to the 50-person pods, inmates in the PSB could also be held in a split housing unit that holds 24 or 28 people. Those units share a dining area.
The Dane County Jail is spread across three facilities that include the Public Safety and City-County buildings downtown and the Ferris Center on the city’s south side. On the CCB floors, inmates are housed in 8-person cell blocks while the Ferris Center accommodates smaller, dorm-style housing of 6-person rooms.
A reduced population allowed jail staff to create space in the housing units with the goal of minimizing the infection rate.
“Cutting down the population in those pods was vastly important to us,” Capt. Chris Nygaard, of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, said.
Moving forward, Eason and the sheriff’s office are discussing the possibility of conducting more sophisticated modeling to determine how jail staff affect the rate of infection and how cases of the virus may have been transmitted differently between housing units in the jail.
Eason said he plans to work toward including information on racial disparities in his work. But given that Black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system and COVID-19, Eason said reducing the overall jail population does the least harm to Black people.
“We either decarcerate or people are dying,” Eason said. “That's kind of where we are. We either decarcerate or Black people, in particular, are going to die.”
Sustainability of decarceration
Looking ahead, Eason said he hopes the rate of infection in the jail will remain under control, however, he expects the number of cases to increase. He said the issue then will be how the sheriff’s office responds to the virus and what practices are implemented within the jail.
“I think there is an effort to continue decarceration and that’s what I’d like to focus on in my work,” Easons said. “Not only minimizing or flattening the curve, but also trying to work toward more sustainable ways of decarcerating and lowering the jail population overall.”
Whether methods used to keep the jail population low are sustainable in a post-pandemic community is unknown. However, there are efforts at the Dane County Board level to study changes made during the pandemic.
County Board Chair Analiese Eicher, who represents District 3, and District 23 Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, who also serves in the state Assembly, proposed an action plan on criminal justice reform that asks law enforcement agencies to outline changes in practice to limit arrests during the pandemic and identify how these practices can be continued and improved.
Also, County Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle, District 1, proposed a resolution that would halt plans for a new $148 million jail facility while implementing changes to decrease the incarcerated population and minimize the role of law enforcement. Some methods, like increased use of electronic monitoring, have been used during the pandemic.
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