Since you asked: Just how overcrowded were prisons before the pandemic, and at this time of social distancing, how overcrowded are they now?

As states mandate reducing the capacity of public spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19, we collect the data to show just how overcrowded almost every state prison system still is.

by Emily Widra, December 21, 2020

Before the pandemic, nine state prison systems and the BOP were operating at 100% capacity or more. These prison systems were holding more people than their facilities were designed to house. Now, 10 months into the pandemic, we find that there are still far too many people crowded into prisons across the country.1 Despite the ongoing pandemic, and efforts to reduce the number of people behind bars, we calculated that 41 states are currently operating at 75% or more of their capacity, with at least nine of those state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons are still operating at more than 100%. Only one state — Maine — has a current prison population below 50% of their capacity.2

Gauging overcrowding in state prison systems during the pandemic

No matter which measure of capacity you use, most states have way too many people confined in facilities
that were designed for far fewer people.

For this analysis, we collected the most recent population data available from state departments of corrections and the Bureau of Prisons and we calculated how full the 48 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons currently are, based on the rated, operational, and design capacities that state and federal officials reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the report, Prisoners in 2019. (We calculated current levels based on each of these three capacity metrics, and reported the highest and lowest results. Two states, Connecticut and Ohio, did not report capacity data to BJS and are therefore not included.) For population counts and reported capacities, see the appendix table below.
Prison system Current operating level based on lowest reported capacity Current operating level based on highest reported capacity As of this date:
Alabama 153% 86% Sept. 2020
Alaska 85% 82% May 1, 2020
Arizona 98% 85% Dec. 2, 2020
Arkansas 103% 99% Sept. 2020
California 110% 78% Dec. 2, 2020
Colorado 117% 105% End of Nov. 2020
Delaware 125% 91% May 1, 2020
Federal 103% 103% Dec. 3, 2020
Florida 106% 106% May 1, 2020
Georgia 87% 75% Dec. 4, 2020
Hawaii 120% 119% Nov. 30, 2020
Idaho 118% 118% May 1, 2020
Illinois 69% 64% Sept. 30, 2020
Indiana 83% 83% Nov. 1, 2020
Iowa 105% 105% Dec. 4, 2020
Kansas 88% 85% Dec. 3, 2020
Kentucky 80% 80% Dec. 4, 2020
Louisiana 92% 84% July 1, 2020
Maine 73% 49% Nov. 30, 2020
Maryland 91% 91% Dec. 31, 2019
Massachusetts 93% 69% Nov. 30, 2020
Michigan 94% 92% May 1, 2020
Minnesota 78% 78% Nov. 30, 2020
Mississippi 110% 110% Nov. 30, 2020
Missouri 85% 83% May 1, 2020
Montana 214% 121% Dec. 3, 2020
Nebraska 158% 117% Jan‑March 2020
Nevada 117% 80% Nov. 29, 2020
New Hampshire 117% 77% Nov. 1, 2020
New Jersey 110% 80% May 1, 2020
New Mexico 125% 90% Dec. 31, 2019
New York 71% 70% Dec. 1, 2020
North Carolina 84% 78% Dec. 4, 2020
North Dakota 97% 97% Dec. 4, 2020
Oklahoma 87% 78% Nov. 30, 2020
Oregon 95% 89% July 1, 2020
Pennsylvania 85% 77% Dec. 4, 2020
Rhode Island 63% 60% May 1, 2020
South Carolina 73% 73% Dec. 4, 2020
South Dakota 75% 75% Oct. 31, 2020
Tennessee 126% 84% Nov. 2020
Texas 101% 97% May 1, 2020
Utah 84% 80% Sept. 4, 2020
Vermont 88% 87% Dec. 4, 2020
Virginia 86% 86% Oct. 2020
Washington 95% 95% Sept. 2020
West Virginia 111% 105% May 1, 2020
Wisconsin 121% 89% Nov. 27, 2020
Wyoming 98% 94% Sept. 30, 2020

Prison overcrowding has always been a serious problem, correlated with increased violence, lack of adequate health care, limited programming and educational opportunities, and reduced visitation. But during the current pandemic, overcrowded prisons — and even prisons operating at levels approaching capacity — are more deadly than ever. In a recent study of Texas prison capacity, COVID infection rates, and mortality, researchers found that prisons holding between 94 and 102% of their capacity had higher infection rates and more deaths than prisons operating at 85% of their total capacity, suggesting that a prison’s crowdedness correlates with viral spread.3 This makes sense when we consider that many state and local governments have mandated restaurants, retail spaces, and schools to operate at a reduced capacity to slow the spread of COVID-19 through communities.

Public health and medical experts have recommended decarceration since the beginning of the pandemic, arguing that fewer people behind bars would protect those who remain incarcerated and correctional staff, as well as slow the spread of COVID-19 in surrounding communities. But even as many prison populations slowly decrease in response to the pandemic, there is still not enough space inside most prisons to allow for adequate social distancing or medical isolation and quarantine. Prisons were not designed to address a public health crisis, and even before COVID-19 entered the picture, public health officials knew that correctional and detention settings were breeding grounds for all sorts of communicable diseases.

Throughout the country, states and the federal system have failed to carry out major prison reductions, leaving prisons operating at, close to, or even above their stated capacities. This contributes to deadly outcomes, as close quarters and high rates of preexisting health conditions among incarcerated people exacerbate the crisis behind bars. As a result, our crowded state and federal prisons have a COVID-19 case rate four times higher, and a death rate twice as high as in the general population.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. There are three accepted ways to measure prison system capacity. Some states chose to report one, two, or all three of these capacity measures to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to the definitions used in Prisoners in 2019, the three major capacity measurements can be defined as:

    • Rated capacity: the number of people or beds a facility can hold, as set by a rating official;
    • Operational capacity: The number of people a facility can hold based on staffing and services;
    • Design capacity: The number of people a facility can hold, as set by the architect or planner.

    These three stated capacities can vary greatly within a state. For example, the BJS reports that the design capacity of the Alabama prison system (set by the architect or planner) is 12,412 people, while the operational capacity (based on staffing and service levels) is 22,231 people. In its report, the BJS calculated what percentage of the capacity each jurisdiction was operating at for each of the three definitions of capacity. In a state like Alabama, this can create a wide range — the BJS calculated that in December 2019, the state was operating at 98% of capacity, based on the stated operational capacity, and 176% based on the stated design capacity. But by any measure, there are too many people in Alabama’s prisons for a pandemic.

     ↩

  2. When drawing these conclusions about the current crowding in prisons, we used the highest of the various stated capacities for each jurisdiction (rated, operational, and design), which, in turn, resulted in the lowest percentage of capacity. In the following table, we provide the percentage of the current populations for both the highest capacity and the lowest capacity metrics, as reported in the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  ↩

  3. The article summarizing these findings is a preprint and has not yet been peer-reviewed.  ↩

 
 

Appendix: State and federal prison system populations, capacities, and data sources

This table shows the different capacities reported by prison systems (rated, operational, and design) and the December 31, 2019 prison populations as reported in the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2019 report and the most recent population data available from individual departments of corrections.

Reported capacity and population for Arizona, Georgia, and South Dakota include private prisons. All other states do not include capacity and custody counts for private prisons. Because the November 2020 population data from the Tennessee Department of Corrections includes private prisons, we replaced the BJS reported population and operational capacity with data reported by the TDOC that includes private prisons.
Prison system Prison system capacity (Bureau of Justice Statistics) Population and percentage of capacity, Dec. 31, 2019 (Bureau of Justice Statistics) Population and percentage of capacity, most recent date in 2020
Rated Operational Design Dec. 31, 2019 custody population Lowest capacity Highest capacity Most recent custody population Lowest capacity Highest capacity Date of most recent population Population source
Alabama 22,231 12,412 21,802 176% 98% 19,014 153% 86% Sept. 2020 Alabama Department of Corrections, Monthly Reports
Alaska 4,838 4,664 4,346 93% 90% 3,985 85% 82% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Arizona 38,872 45,091 38,872 42,441 109% 94% 38,123 98% 85% Dec. 2, 2020 Arizona Department of Corrections, COVID-19 Dashboard
Arkansas 16,335 16,374 15,767 15,742 100% 96% 16,215 103% 99% Sept. 2020 Arkansas Department of Corrections, Board Report
California 125,465 89,663 121,062 135% 97% 98,367 110% 78% Dec. 2, 2020 California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, Weekly Report of Population
Colorado 14,691 13,145 15,689 119% 107% 15,368 117% 105% End of Nov. 2020 Colorado Department of Corrections, End-of-Month Inmate Population
Connecticut 12,274 9,249 Dec. 4, 2020 State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, Total Correctional Facility Population Count
Delaware 5,514 5,566 4,062 5,049 124% 91% 5,081 125% 91% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Federal Bureau of Prisons 134,133 147,404 110% 110% 138,776 103% 103% Dec. 3, 2020 Federal Bureau of Prisons, Population Statistics
Florida 87,514 82,282 94% 94% 92,574 106% 106% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Georgia 59,649 51,806 54,620 105% 92% 44,996 87% 75% Dec. 4, 2020 Georgia Department of Corrections, Friday Report
Hawaii 3,487 3,527 3,527 3,550 102% 101% 4,183 120% 119% Nov. 30, 2020 Hawaii Department of Public Safety, End of Month Population Report
Idaho 7,651 8,422 110% 110% 9,028 118% 118% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Illinois 44,824 48,157 37,746 84% 78% 30,888 69% 64% Sept. 30, 2020 Illinois Department of Corrections, Prison Population Data Sets
Indiana 29,019 26,952 93% 93% 24,203 83% 83% Nov. 1, 2020 Indiana Department of Corrections, Offender Population Report
Iowa 7,089 7,089 7,089 8,438 119% 119% 7,441 105% 105% Dec. 4, 2020 Iowa Department of Corrections, Daily Statistics
Kansas 9,784 10,102 9,858 9,784 100% 97% 8,582 88% 85% Dec. 3, 2020 Kansas Department of Corrections, Adult Population Report
Kentucky 12,563 12,563 12,563 12,220 97% 97% 10,019 80% 80% Dec. 4, 2020 Kentucky Department of Corrections, Statewide Population Report
Louisiana 17,956 16,344 16,764 15,042 92% 84% 15108 92% 84% July 1, 2020 Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, July 2020 Update
Maine 2,365 2,591 3,481 2,167 92% 62% 1,722 73% 49% Nov. 30, 2020 Maine Department of Corrections, In-State Facility Capacity and Population
Maryland 20,693 18,825 91% 91% 18,825 91% 91% Dec. 31, 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2019, Table 17
Massachusetts 10,173 7,492 7,923 106% 78% 7,003 93% 69% Nov. 30, 2020 Massachusetts Department of Corrections, Weekly County Sheet
Michigan 40,037 39,257 38,053 97% 95% 36,980 94% 92% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Minnesota 9,504 9,093 96% 96% 7,401 78% 78% Nov. 30, 2020 Minnesota Department of Corrections, Prison Population Since March 1, 2020
Mississippi 11,802 10,290 87% 87% 13,020 110% 110% Nov. 30, 2020 Mississippi Department of Corrections, Daily Inmate Population
Missouri 30,332 29,596 26,012 88% 86% 25,133 85% 83% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Montana 2,012 1,935 1,142 1,985 174% 99% 2,440 214% 121% Dec. 3, 2020 Montana Department of Corrections, Secure Facility Population
Nebraska 4,807 3,535 5,546 157% 115% 5,601 158% 117% Jan-March 2020 Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Quarterly Population Summary, Average Daily Population
Nevada 14,107 12,376 9,567 12,414 130% 88% 11,222 117% 80% Nov. 29, 2020 Nevada Department of Corrections, Stat Facts
New Hampshire 2,760 2,760 1,810 2,464 136% 89% 2,120 117% 77% Nov. 1, 2020 New Hampshire Department of Corrections
New Jersey 15,983 17,219 21,877 15,988 100% 73% 17,519 110% 80% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
New Mexico 3,418 4,764 4,278 125% 90% 4,278 125% 90% Dec. 31, 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2019, Table 17
New York 50,121 50,315 49,593 43,515 88% 87% 35,353 71% 70% Dec. 1, 2020 New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, DOCCS Fact Sheet
North Carolina 39,012 36,226 34,480 95% 88% 30,376 84% 78% Dec. 4, 2020 North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Statistics
North Dakota 1,463 1,463 1,463 1,459 100% 100% 1,417 97% 97% Dec. 4, 2020 North Dakota Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, Operational Capacity Daily Count
Ohio 43,572 44,245 Nov. 25, 2020 Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, Weekly Population Count Reports
Oklahoma 17,549 19,614 17,549 18,758 107% 96% 15,305 87% 78% Nov. 30, 2020 Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Weekly Count
Oregon 14,712 15,612 14,712 14,412 98% 92% 13,956 95% 89% July 1, 2020 Oregon Department of Corrections, Population Demographics
Pennsylvania 51,157 46,359 44,871 97% 88% 39,246 85% 77% Dec. 4, 2020 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Daily Population Report
Rhode Island 3,989 3,790 3,977 2,587 68% 65% 2,395 63% 60% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
South Carolina 21,586 18,123 84% 84% 15,726 73% 73% Dec. 4, 2020 South Carolina Department of Corrections, Population Counts and Capacities
South Dakota 4,397 3,763 86% 86% 3,317 75% 75% Oct. 31, 2020 South Dakota Department of Corrections, End of Month Population
Tennessee 15,978 23,375 21,669 136% 93% 19,601 126% 84% Nov. 2020 Tennessee Department of Corrections, Bed Space and Operating Capacities Report
Texas 155,634 149,605 155,634 133,496 89% 86% 151,126 101% 97% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Utah 6,771 7,127 5,102 75% 72% 5,719 84% 80% Sept. 4, 2020 Email correspondence with Utah Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Kaitlin Felsted
Vermont 1,546 1,546 1,568 1,396 90% 89% 1,368 88% 87% Dec. 4, 2020 Vermont Department of Corrections, Daily Population
Virginia 29,222 27,801 95% 95% 25,156 86% 86% Oct. 2020 Virginia Department of Corrections, Monthly Population Summary
Washington 16,976 17,882 105% 105% 16,183 95% 95% Sept. 2020 Washington State Department of Corrections, Fact Card
West Virginia 5,910 6,241 5,910 5,910 100% 95% 6,550 111% 105% May 1, 2020 Vera Institute of Justice, People in Prison, 2019 (via public information request)
Wisconsin 23,170 16,983 23,402 138% 101% 20,514 121% 89% Nov. 27, 2020 Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Weekly Population Reports
Wyoming 2,288 2,288 2,407 1,980 87% 82% 2,252 98% 94% Sept. 30, 2020 Wyoming Department of Corrections, Monthly Inmate Population Report

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



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