Prisons and jails throughout the country find themselves in an acute dilemma regarding the coronavirus. Without adequate testing of staff and inmates and with little experience with the virus, the immediate response is frequently lockdown. Key programs and routines that contributed to prison life — visitations, religious services, educational services, job programs, recreational activities — have been halted or downscaled dramatically for safety. But correctional leaders know that in the long run, this is an untenable situation.

Lengthy lockdowns and reductions in essential — and often legally mandated — programs and services run the risks of lawsuits and even destructive actions by prisoners. With little or no data to guide them, correctional leaders must make important decisions that will affect the spread of COVID-19 among their staff and inmates many times each day. Should certain movements be allowed? Can the staff hold a meeting? Should meals no longer be served in the mess hall? Should gym and workout facilities be closed?

CNA’s Institute for Public Research (IPR) is developing a solution to help fill this knowledge gap. We are adapting a model recently developed by CNA’s Fleet Operations and Assessment Program to simulate and predict the spread of the Coronavirus on Navy vessels. Our correctional facilities model, Simulation Applications for Forecasting Effective Responses in Corrections ( SAFER-C™) tracks prisoners and staff on an individual basis, using the groups that each infected individual joins as the likely means of virus spread.

We are piloting and testing  SAFER-C™ at a secure correctional facility in the Midwest. IPR staff have spent several weeks learning about the daily operations of the prison, particularly the living and working assignments for both staff and inmates, as well as their daily frequency of contact. With this information, along with COVID-19 data from the Centers for Disease Control, the model can project the number of infections and deaths among staff and prisoners. SAFER-C™  contains several sets of parameters that can be adjusted based on changes in prison operations, the number of staff or prisoners, the estimated frequency of contact between staff and prisoners in certain locations like the mess hall or yard, and more.

By running the model repeatedly, we develop a range of possible outcomes that can help correctional administrators as they make decisions in the pandemic. For example, they can better predict the impact of closing the mess hall and serving meals in prison cells, or of stopping or restarting education, work, visitation, or religious programs. With more information about potential outcomes from these decisions, the model will help correctional leaders identify lower-risk strategies for restoring some prison activities.

Soon, our SAFER-C™ will be out of initial piloting and testing phases, and CNA hopes to tailor the model for a jail in another state. The goal is a rapid rollout of the model to assist corrections facilities nationwide—because better-informed decisions are vital to the safety, security and health of the nation.

James “Chip” Coldren is a justice research expert with over 35 years of research experience in justice system effectiveness, police evaluation, crime prevention, corrections, juvenile justice and restorative justice.