Half of states fail to require mask use by correctional staff

States are not reducing their populations sufficiently to slow the spread of COVID-19, and our survey reveals that 20 states are not even requiring masks to be worn by staff and most are not requiring incarcerated people to wear them.

by Emily Widra and Tiana Herring, August 14, 2020

The best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons is to reduce the population density, but as we’ve found, states are moving far too slowly in this regard. In this new analysis, we find that states are also failing at the most modest mitigation efforts imaginable: requiring correctional staff and incarcerated people to wear masks.

Almost all states1 are distributing masks to staff and incarcerated people,2 but only half of all states are requiring that staff wear the masks at work. We examined the policies of each state’s Department of Corrections to see which states are requiring masks for staff.

Map showing which states are requiring correctional staff to wear face masks. 30 states currently require correctional facility staff to wear face masks, while 20 states and the District of Columbia do not. Map updated on August 24, 2020 following a report from the South Carolina Department of Corrections that they are requiring staff to wear masks, although no policy requiring masks is available to the public. (Data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative from Departments of Corrections policies and news reports.)

Just because states require the use of masks by staff does not mean that the policy is adequately enforced. There have been a number of reports from incarcerated people that correctional staff have not been wearing masks appropriately when interacting with those who are in custody. In Arkansas, masks are required for staff, but an internal email from the state’s highest corrections official to the wardens of each prison in the state reveals that “hospitals are not wanting to treat our inmates because our staff are not following the [mask] guidelines that we are sending out.”3

Of course, even in states where masks are not required by correctional policy, staff can choose to wear them. But reports from incarcerated people and their families suggest this is wishful thinking. For example, in New Jersey — a state where the COVID-19 pandemic hit prisons early and hard — staff are not required to wear masks and reports from inside say that many staff are not wearing masks.4

As we all know by now, the federal government’s February guidance discouraging masks quickly proved to be misguided, and the most current research makes it even clearer that masks benefit both the wearer and everyone else.

Wearing masks protects the public:

  • In states that only required certain employees to wear masks, there was no effect on the county-level daily COVID-19 growth rate, but requiring everyone to wear masks results in a significant decline in infections.
  • Face masks have driven down rates of overall COVID infections, as seen in hospital settings, hair salons, and on cruise ships.
  • Beyond COVID, masks have long been known to reduce the likelihood of transmission of epidemic respiratory illnesses. This is particularly true in community-living settings like dense prisons.

Masks protect the individuals who wear them:

Requiring correctional staff to wear face masks is just commonsense: staff are responsible for most day-to-day movement in and out of prisons (and are therefore most likely to carry the virus in and out of them) and they are state employees who must adhere to state regulations and requirements. But states should not stop with mandating masks for staff; they should be requiring everyone in the facility to wear masks.
The obvious implication of the science behind using masks is that the more people who wear masks, the slower the virus will spread. Yet while 27 states require correctional staff to wear masks, only 14 state prison systems require incarcerated people to wear masks.6

Map showing which states are requiring incarcerated people to wear face masks. 16 states currently require incarcerated people to wear face masks, while 34 states and the District of Columbia do not. Strangely, Illinois is the only state that appears to require incarcerated people wear masks, but does not require the same for staff. Map updated on August 24, 2020 following a report from the South Carolina Department of Corrections that they are requiring incarcerated people to wear masks, although no policy requiring masks is available to the public. (Data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative from Departments of Corrections policies and news reports.)

The fact that far fewer states require incarcerated people to wear masks than correctional staff may reflect some reluctance to create conflict with incarcerated people over potential enforcement issues. (A more cynical view might interpret this hands-off approach as a callous lack of concern about incarcerated people’s lives and health.) But if correctional agencies care about protecting incarcerated people and staff, they could craft policies that reward those who wear masks, instead of policies that threaten disciplinary action for non-compliance.

We know that reducing the number of people behind bars is the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 through prisons, jails, and their surrounding communities, but this analysis finds that many states are not even practicing the most basic preventative measure: requiring face masks in prisons, just as they are required by many states in other public spaces. State prison systems need to catch up before it’s too late.

 

Footnotes

  1. Publicly available information indicates that the Department of Corrections in Rhode Island and the District of Columbia are providing masks to staff, but there is no available information about these Departments of Correction providing masks to incarcerated people.  ↩

  2. It is worth noting that mask distribution in prisons across the U.S. has been fueled in part by outside charitable organizations donating over $10 million worth of personal protective equipment, including face masks.  ↩

  3. Arkansas is not the only state with staff who are not adhering to the policy that explicitly requires them to wear masks. For example, reports of staff not wearing masks – despite official requirements – have surfaced in state prisons in Michigan, Vermont, Connecticut, and Wisconsin.  ↩

  4. Reports from other states without staff mask policies – including Maine and Nevada – suggest that prison staff are not choosing to wear masks of their own accord. Although the federal prison system was outside the scope of this survey, it is relevant to note that reports from both staff and incarcerated people indicate that the U.S. Marshals are transporting people without masks and without adequate physical distancing.  ↩

  5. This study was published on July 31st and is based on the most current understanding of the virus.  ↩

  6. As of August 1st, most state prison systems are providing masks to both correctional staff and the in-custody population. Based on the available information from Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, it is possible – although unlikely – that Rhode Island and the District are not providing masks to incarcerated. The correctional policies on masks in both Rhode Island and D.C. mention providing staff with masks, but we could not find any mention of providing masks to incarcerated people and they failed to respond to our inquiries prior to publication of this report.  ↩

Appendix table

Collected by the Prison Policy Initiative from individual state policies and news reports. Last updated August 24, 2020. (The imprecise dates from Alaska, South Carolina, and Texas reflect how those states reported the information to us.)
State Announcement of providing masks to staff Announcement of providing masks to incarcerated people Announcement that masks are required for staff Announcement that masks are required for incarcerated people
Alabama 4/1/20 4/1/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Alaska Late March 4/14/20 7/22/20 Not applicable
Arizona 4/7/20 7/2/20 6/15/20 Not applicable
Arkansas 4/2/20 4/2/20 4/15/20 4/15/20
California 4/6/20 4/6/20 4/6/20 4/6/20
Colorado 4/16/20 4/16/20 4/16/20 Not applicable
Connecticut 4/16/20 4/16/20 4/22/20 4/22/20
Delaware 4/10/20 4/10/20 Not applicable Not applicable
District of Columbia 4/30/20 Not applicable Not applicable Not applicable
Florida 4/11/20 4/30/20 4/30/20 4/30/20
Georgia 5/14/20 5/14/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Hawaii 4/10/20 4/10/20 4/30/20 Not applicable
Idaho 4/6/20 4/6/20 6/24/20 6/29/20
Illinois 4/2/20 5/4/20 Not applicable 5/4/20
Indiana 4/22/20 4/22/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Iowa 4/10/20 4/10/20 4/11/20 Not applicable
Kansas 4/23/20 4/23/20 7/3/20 7/3/20
Kentucky 4/3/20 4/3/20 7/10/20 Not applicable
Louisiana 4/9/20 4/9/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Maine 4/15/20 4/15/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Maryland 4/3/20 4/3/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Massachusetts 5/4/20 5/4/20 5/4/20 Not applicable
Michigan 3/26/20 3/26/20 4/6/20 4/6/20
Minnesota 4/2/20 4/2/20 6/16/20 6/16/20
Mississippi 4/27/20 4/27/20 4/16/20 Not applicable
Missouri 4/3/20 4/3/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Montana 4/17/20 4/17/20 6/12/20 Not applicable
Nebraska 4/6/20 4/6/20 4/3/20 Not applicable
Nevada 5/7/20 6/24/20 Not applicable Not applicable
New Hampshire 4/3/20 4/28/20 4/21/20 Not applicable
New Jersey 3/25/20 4/16/20 Not applicable Not applicable
New Mexico 4/28/20 4/28/20 Not applicable Not applicable
New York 4/9/20 5/7/20 4/15/20 Not applicable
North Carolina 4/6/20 4/6/20 4/21/20 Not applicable
North Dakota 3/26/20 3/25/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Ohio 4/30/20 4/30/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Oklahoma 4/1/20 4/1/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Oregon 4/2/20 4/2/20 5/14/20 8/20/20
Pennsylvania 3/25/20 3/25/20 3/31/20 Not applicable
Rhode Island 4/9/20 Not applicable Not applicable Not applicable
South Carolina 4/7/20 4/7/20 April April
South Dakota 4/3/20 4/3/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Tennessee 4/9/20 4/9/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Texas 4/5/20 Late April 4/5/20 Late April
Utah 4/14/20 4/14/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Vermont 4/8/20 4/8/20 4/9/20 4/9/20
Virginia 3/23/20 3/23/20 4/3/20 4/3/20
Washington 4/3/20 4/17/20 4/10/20 4/17/20
West Virginia 4/24/20 4/24/20 Not applicable Not applicable
Wisconsin 4/6/20 4/6/20 7/6/20 7/6/20
Wyoming 4/17/20 4/17/20 4/17/20 Not applicable

Emily Widra is a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Tiana Herring is a Research Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

5 responses:

  1. Deborah D Dandridge says:

    I find it interesting that Pennsylvania did indeed make the proclamation that state prison staff MUST wear masks (inmates are highly encouraged to wear masks) and have published it on their website. However, this is not what is happening inside the prisons. I have first hand information that inmates are being punished for not wearing masks and staff are not required to wear masks. Some staff even taunt inmates by refusing to mask-up, when asked, because they are in close proximity. I find this akin to murder (in Pennsylvania a person can be and often is sentenced to life if they are in the proximity of the killer during a murder). Such a simple accommodation should not even be questioned!

  2. Globaltel says:

    Well, this is very alarming! Especially to those healthcare workers who will hear from this! Has the World Health Organization heard or known of this situation?

    1. We’re not sure if the WHO has spoken out about the lack of masks in US prisons, but they’ve made statements urging prisons to reduce populations to slow the pandemic: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/13-05-2020-unodc-who-unaids-and-ohchr-joint-statement-on-covid-19-in-prisons-and-other-closed-settings

  3. Georgia says:

    Masks are inadequate!
    Arkansas’ inmates and staff are forced to wear masks made of one layer of polyester shirt material. CDC recommends double layer of cotton.
    Pictures will be supplied on request.

  4. jailaid says:

    Instead, inmates have worn prison-issued bandanas or other makeshift face coverings. Only detainees who test positive for the illness have received surgical masks. The state ordered all prison staff to wear masks while on duty on April 15. Prison officials have also begun distributing cloth masks to the roughly 41,000 people serving state sentences. The first batch of 4,000 masks were donated Wednesday by two service organizations, Hudson Link and the NY Consortium for Higher Education, DOCCS said. The state will provide a second cloth mask to every inmate, the agency added.



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