Visualizing changes in the incarcerated population during COVID-19

Initial policy changes that resulted in quick and necessary decarceration have slowed, despite the growing infection and death rate of COVID-19 in prisons and jails.

by Emily Widra, September 10, 2020

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it became painfully obvious that people incarcerated in jails and prisons would be uniquely vulnerable to both the spread of the disease and the more serious medical consequences of the disease due to the high prevalence of preexisting health conditions.

Now, when all of the top 10 clusters of COVID-19 in the U.S. are linked to prisons and jails, and with the 997 COVID-19 deaths behind bars surpassing the number of COVID-19 deaths in 19 states and Washington, D.C., state and local governments should be redoubling their efforts to reduce the number of people in confinement. But our most recent analysis of jail and prison populations shows that many of the efforts to reduce incarcerated and detained populations have actually slowed–and even reversed in many counties and states.

  1. Jail populations dropped quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local authorities who run jails have not sustained those efforts and populations have started to rise over the last two months. Across the 451 county jails we analyzed, 98% of the jails saw population decreases from March to May, with an average population reduction of 33%. But 82% of jails had population increases from May to September, suggesting that most jurisdictions have abandoned the efforts to decarcerate that made such crucial changes early in the pandemic. In 88 counties, jail populations are higher now than they were before the pandemic, including in some large counties like Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan, where the jail population on March 10th was 2,086 people and is now over 2,400 people.
  2. graph showing jail population changes from March 10 to Sept 3 This graph contains aggregated data collected by NYU’s Public Safety Lab and is an update of the first graph in our August 5th briefing. The Public Safety Lab is continuing to add more jails to their data collection and data was not available for all facilities for all days, so these graphs show jails where the Lab was able to report data for at least 150 of the 178 days in our research period. To smooth out most of the variations caused by individual facilities not being reported on particular days, we chose to present the data as 7-day rolling averages.

  3. In New York City, the jail population sharply declined after the pandemic was declared. Importantly, NYC jails–particularly Rikers Island–were some of the first jails in the country to witness a COVID-19 outbreak. And yet, across different demographics, NYC jail populations have slowly leveled out, suggesting that the policies responsible for the necessary decarceration are no longer in practice.
  4. graph showing changes in NYC jail population by demographics The percent of the jail population detained for technical violations of probation and those serving “city sentences” (a city sentence is defined as a sentence of 1 year or less) drastically dropped, while the percent of the population detained pretrial and those over the age of 50 did not see such drastic reductions. But, across all of these categories, efforts to reduce the jail population in NYC appears to have slowed to a halt despite the fact that 6% of people incarcerated in NYC jails currently have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 1,400 NYC correctional staff have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

  5. In early August, we reported that state prison populations had been steadily declining, but that the progress was still too slow to save lives. Now, with updated data from mid-to-late August, we can see that this progress continues to be slow, with little to no change between July and August prison populations in North Carolina, Arizona, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Vermont, Maine, Utah, and North Dakota. California has reduced its state prison population by about 7% since the end of July, likely due in part to the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in San Quentin State Prison in early August, but as of September 2nd, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 108% of their design capacity.
  6. graph showing population changes in 17 state prisons from January to September 2020 Prison population data for 17 states where population data was readily available for January, May, July, August, and September either directly from the state Departments of Correction or the Vera Institute of Justice. The average population decrease across these 17 state prison systems has slowed to about 3% from July 1st to August 31st, compared to the 8% decrease between March 1st and April 30th. Many of the most important policy changes announced in the states that made these small reductions possible are covered in our COVID-19 response tracker. This graph is an update of the graph included in our August 5th briefing.
    Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if Connecticut and Vermont are showing larger declines than most other states because they have “unified” prison and jail systems, but separately published data from both states show that the bulk of their population reduction is coming from within the “sentenced” portion of their populations. (For the Connecticut data, see the Correctional Facility Population Count tracker, and for Vermont, compare the March 13 and September 4 population reports.)

Prisons and jails are notoriously dangerous places during a viral outbreak, and continue to be the source of the largest number of infections in the U.S. The COVID-19 death rate in prisons is three times higher than among the general U.S. population, even when adjusted for age and sex (as the prison population is disproportionately young and male). Despite agreement among public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates that decarceration will protect incarcerated people and the community-at-large from COVID-19, state, federal, and local authorities continue to put incarcerated people’s lives at risk– and by extension, the communities in which incarcerated people and correctional staff live and work.

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

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