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.
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.
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:
- Wearing a mask reduces the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.
- Even if you still contract COVID-19 while wearing a mask, the disease is more likely to be mild or even asymptomatic.5
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
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.
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
|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|
|Delaware||4/10/20||4/10/20||Not applicable||Not applicable|
|District of Columbia||4/30/20||Not applicable||Not applicable||Not applicable|
|Georgia||5/14/20||5/14/20||Not applicable||Not applicable|
|Indiana||4/22/20||4/22/20||Not applicable||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|
|Missouri||4/3/20||4/3/20||Not applicable||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|
|Rhode Island||4/9/20||Not applicable||Not applicable||Not applicable|
|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|
|West Virginia||4/24/20||4/24/20||Not applicable||Not applicable|