Experts discuss how coronavirus spreads through prisons to nearby communities

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Thousands of incarcerated people have been infected with COVID-19 in the United States. As part of our #AskReuters Twitter chat series, Reuters hosted a conversation with Piper Kerman, author of "Orange Is The New Black," and Lawrence Bartley of The Marshall Project about how conditions in jails and prisons can increase the spread of the new coronavirus.

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Below are edited highlights.

Some of the biggest known COVID-19 clusters have been in prisons and jails. What is it about correctional facilities that makes them so susceptible to the virus?

Kerman: It was always clear that prisons and jails would be COVID-19 pandemic hot spots; American prisons and jails are densely packed as we have by far the biggest prison population in the world. For example, I taught at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio for four years, where one of the earliest COVID-19 outbreaks happened behind bars. The prison was built for 1,400 men but 2,600 are incarcerated there. In these conditions, it is impossible to stop the spread. To drive that home, even the director of the Ohio prison system has tested positive for COVID-19.

Bartley: Prisons and jails are not built for social distancing. There might be incarcerated people that live in dorms and their cots are about three feet apart from each other. Many of them are double-bunked. There might be cells stacked on top of each other, like a honeycomb, and the cells are separated only by bars - coughs and sneezes can easily go through. Prisons only recently started handing out masks and there aren't adequate cleaning supplies. People from different prisons are often transferred to other prisons. That's also a big way for the virus to be passed along.

In what ways does the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails also affect neighboring communities?

Kerman: There are more than 7,000 prisons, jails and detention centers in the U.S. and nearly half a million workers pass through them every single day. I can't overemphasize that it's impossible to keep COVID-19 behind prison walls. Many prisons are in remote areas with limited medical capacity, and they are becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19. The only solution is to decarcerate by releasing people back to their homes – which can be done safely.

Bartley: The people who work in these institutions go home to their families. They go shopping every day. They go to their doctors. At The Marshall Project, we wrote a story about a corrections officer named Cary Johnson who says she understands how easily she could contract the virus. When she gets home, she takes all of her clothes off, puts them in a garbage bag, and tells her husband to keep her son away from her until after she has taken a shower. Also, when people in prison get sick, they are often taken to local hospitals. That's another way it affects the neighboring communities and why it's important that people in prison get adequate cleaning supplies and social distancing. This is not just a prison problem — it's a worldwide problem, and we're all affected by it.

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