COVID-19

The pandemic’s impact on prisons and jails

On this page, the Prison Policy Initiative has curated much of the key research about the impact of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system. For research on other criminal justice topics, see our Research Library homepage.


  • (New) Three State Prison Oversight During the COVID-19 Pandemic Pennsylvania Prison Society, John Howard Association, and Correctional Association of New York, April, 2022“[We] provide data unavailable in states lacking similar independent oversight, and it tells a story of very different responses to comparable challenges, and a lack of transparency on the details of the crisis and policies developed in response.”
  • In-Cell Dining During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Survey of People in Pennsylvania State Custody Pennsylvania Prison Society, March, 2022“The survey found that 62% of respondents want to return to eating in dining halls, and 74% report being served rotten food in the last month.”
  • Compassionate Release: The Impact of the First Step Act and COVID-19 Pandemic United States Sentencing Commission, March, 2022“As the length of the offender's original sentence increased, the likelihood that the court would grant relief decreased (from 56.9% of offenders sentenced to a term of 12 months or less to 19.8% of offenders sentenced to a term of 120-240 months).”
  • The prison context itself undermines public health and vaccination efforts Prison Policy Initiative, March, 2022“49% of respondents reported that they generally trust doctors and healthcare providers to make medically correct judgements, but only 9% of respondents trust doctors or healthcare providers in a prison to make medically correct judgments.”
  • The Novel Coronavirus and Enforcement of the New Separate System in Prisons Michael Klein et al, March, 2022“All regions report that they gave more [COVID-19] protections to officers as compared with inmates. Several regions also show substantial differences between the policy responses for these two groups.”
  • Canary in the Coal Mine: A Profile of Staff COVID Deaths in the Texas Prison System Alexi Jones, Michele Deitch, and Alycia Welch, Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, February, 2022“A total of 78 TDCJ employees have died from COVID... With 26 deaths for every 10,000 TDCJ employees, Texas has the highest rate of staff deaths among the largest prison systems in the country and the second highest rate of death nationwide.”
  • COVID looks like it may stay. That means prison medical copays must go. Prison Policy Initiative, February, 2022“Medical copays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public, with little payoff in terms of offsetting medical costs and reducing "unnecessary" office visits.”
  • State prisons and local jails appear indifferent to COVID outbreaks, refuse to depopulate dangerous facilities Prison Policy Initiative, February, 2022“The increasing jail populations across the country suggest that after the first wave of responses to COVID-19, many local officials have allowed jail admissions to return to business as usual.”
  • People in Prison in Winter 2021-22 Vera Institute of Justice, February, 2022“All states and the federal prison system reduced their prison populations in 2020, but 19 states and the federal government increased the number of people incarcerated in prisons in 2021.”
  • New data: The changes in prisons, jails, probation, and parole in the first year of the pandemic Prison Policy Initiative, January, 2022“Most of the drop in prison populations occurred within the federal Bureau of Prisons and just three states: California, Florida, and Texas. And even states that reduced prison populations didn't necessarily reach”
  • "My Greatest Fear is To Be a Lab Rat For the State": COVID-19 and Vaccine Hesitancy in NYS Prisons Correctional Association of New York, January, 2022“Of 166 respondents, 42.7% said that DOCCS administering the vaccine would make them less likely to accept the vaccine (n=71).”
  • Since you asked: What information is available about COVID-19 and vaccinations in prison now? Prison Policy Initiative, December, 2021“Only two states -- Maryland and South Carolina -- are publishing the number of incarcerated people who have refused the vaccine, while no prison systems are publishing the number of staff who have refused a vaccine.”
  • Neighborhood Racial and Economic Segregation and Disparities in Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic Paywall :( Julia P. Schleimer et al., December, 2021“In 2020, violence was higher in less-privileged neighborhoods than in the most privileged...The events of 2020 exacerbated disparities in several forms of violence.”
  • Pandemics, Prisons, and Policy: An Overview of Criminal Justice and Public Health in Tennessee Hadassah Betapudi and Anna Walton, December, 2021“Among the 50 states, Tennessee ranks 20th for the highest number of state prisoners infected with coronavirus per capita, with 7,290 total cases.20 Significantly, this means there is one known case per every three prisoners.”
  • Policing the pandemic: estimating spatial and racialized inequities in New York City police enforcement of COVID-19 mandates Sandhya Kajeepeta et al, November, 2021“Findings suggest that ZIP codes with higher percentages of lower income and Black residents experienced disproportionately high rates of policing during the COVID-19 pandemic in the name of public health.”
  • Data update: As the Delta variant ravages the country, correctional systems are dropping the ball (again) Prison Policy Initiative, October, 2021“While some prison systems and local jails have maintained historically low populations, others have returned to pre-pandemic levels, despite the ongoing dangers of COVID-19.”
  • Association of Jail Decarceration and Anticontagion Policies With COVID-19 Case Growth Rates in US Counties Eric Reinhart and Daniel L. Chen, September, 2021“When controlling for anticontagion policies, mass release events were associated with a 3.1% decrease in COVID-19 growth rates 2 weeks later and a 5.3% decrease in daily jail population.”
  • report thumbnail States of emergency: The failure of prison system responses to COVID-19 Prison Policy Initiative, September, 2021“It's telling that not one prison system in the U.S. scored higher than a C; as a whole, the nation's response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure.”
  • A Dose of Dignity: Equitable Vaccination Policies for Incarcerated People and Correctional Staff During the Covid-19 Pandemic Itay Ravid, Jordan Hyatt, and Steven L. Chanenson, September, 2021“Governments--and the society they represent--have both a constitutional and a moral obligation to take care of people they choose to incarcerate. That includes providing vaccines...There are no constitutional exceptions for public health crises.”
  • Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities Council on Criminal Justice, July, 2021“The motor vehicle theft rate was 21% higher - 9,861 more motor vehicle thefts - during the first half of 2021 than the year before.”
  • The Revelatory Nature of COVID-19 Compassionate Release in an Age of Mass Incarceration, Crime Victim Rights, and Mental Health Reform Jennifer A. Brobst, July, 2021“Early COVID-19 compassionate release decisions reveal that courts continue to base early release decisions primarily on an assessment of public safety risk from crime, not community impact, crime victim impact, or even prisoner health.”
  • A global analysis of the impact of COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions on crime Amy E. Nivette et al., June, 2021“While some early studies suggested that violent and non-violent crime dropped as regulations were imposed, there is also evidence that the effects of COVID-19 on crime are not universal across countries nor across different categories of crime.”
  • Is There a Temporal Relationship between COVID-19 Infections among Prison Staff, Incarcerated Persons and the Larger Community in the United States? Danielle Wallace et al., June, 2021“Even with strong infection control policies in place, correctional staff are associated with infection spread within prisons.”
  • Keeping COVID Out of Prisons: Approaches in Ten Countries Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, May, 2021“The South African prison population declined after a period of relative stability prepandemic. Total prisoner numbers were in the region of 162-164,000 in the four years prior to the pandemic, but had fallen to 147,922 in June 2020.”
  • Locked in and Locked Down - Prison Life in a Pandemic: Evidence from Ten Countries Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, May, 2021“We present evidence of how life in custody changed as a result of the global health emergency, drawn from over 80 interviews with prisoners, ex-prisoners and their loved ones, which we and our research partners conducted before and during the pandemic.”
  • The Pandemic Gender Gap Behind Bars: Meeting the Needs of Women in Custody During COVID-19 and Planning for the Future Alycia Welch and Michele Deitch, May, 2021“Even before the pandemic, women were overlooked in correctional facilities that were not designed for them and that are not administered with them in mind.”
  • Carceral-community epidemiology, structural racism, and COVID-19 disparities Eric Reinhart, Daniel L. Chen, May, 2021“We find that cycling individuals through Cook County Jail in March 2020 alone can account for 13% of all COVID-19 cases and 21% of racial COVID-19 disparities in Chicago as of early August.”
  • Just over half of incarcerated people are vaccinated, despite being locked in COVID-19 epicenters Prison Policy Initiative, May, 2021“Most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, seven months since the first vaccines were distributed, just 55% of people in prison have been vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to infection.”
  • COVID-19 Testing in State Prisons Council on Criminal Justice, April, 2021“The evidence suggests that more testing, early testing, and early mass testing may have been strategies that helped states achieve lower rates of COVID-19 mortality behind bars.”
  • Pandemic Caseloads Highlights: Court filings and dispositions 2019-2020 Court Statistics Project, March, 2021“While the number of case filings is expected to return to normal in criminal, traffic, and juvenile over the course of 2021, no surge in cases is expected.”
  • Parole boards approved fewer releases in 2020 than in 2019, despite the raging pandemic Prison Policy Initiative, February, 2021“In over half of the states we studied--Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina - between 2019 and 2020, there was either no change or a decrease in parole grant rates.”
  • How much have COVID-19 releases changed prison and jail populations? Prison Policy Initiative, February, 2021“The good news is that jail and prison populations remain lower than they were before COVID-19, but it's not obvious just how much of that is attributable to additional releases.”
  • More states need to use their Prison Policy Initiative, January, 2021“The suspension of programs during the pandemic makes it impossible for people in prison to work toward earlier release.”
  • People in jails are using more phone minutes during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite decreased jail populations Prison Policy Initiative, January, 2021“Our study of 14 jails finds that there were 8% more overall minutes used during the pandemic, despite the fact that nationwide jail populations have fallen about 15%.”
  • The Pandemic Behind Bars: COVID-19, Vaccination, and the People in Colorado's Prisons and Jails Colorado Health Institute, January, 2021“Outbreaks at prisons, jails, and other correctional and detention facilities account for 1 in every 24 cases of COVID-19 in Colorado since the start of the pandemic, and 15 of the 20 largest outbreaks in the state have occurred in prisons and jails.”
  • Prisons, Nursing Homes, and Medicaid: A COVID-19 Case Study in Health Injustice Mary Crossley, 2021“This essay highlights the experiences of Black people and disabled people, and how societal choices have caused them to experience the brunt of the pandemic. It will focus on prisons and nursing homes--institutions that emerged as COVID-19 hotspots.”
  • Prisons shouldn't be charging medical co-pays - especially during a pandemic Prison Policy Initiative, December, 2020“Most states are still charging medical co-pays in prisons despite the ongoing pandemic.”
  • Incarcerated people and corrections staff should be prioritized in COVID-19 vaccination plans Prison Policy Initiative, December, 2020“38 of the 49 states addressed (or seemed to address) incarcerated people as a priority group at all, in the original plans or in later updates. But in many states, correctional staff are prioritized before incarcerated people.”
  • Prison Population Reductions and COVID-19: A Latent Profile Analysis Synthesizing Recent Evidence From the Texas State Prison System Noel Vest, Oshea Johnson, Kathryn Nowotny & Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, December, 2020“Current prison population and level of employee staffing predicted membership in the high-outbreak and high-death profiles when compared with the low-outbreak profile.”
  • Institutional Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic in American Prisons Meghan A. Novisky, Chelsey S. Narvey, and Daniel C. Semenza, October, 2020“Correctional facilities remain high-risk locales for outbreaks and it is imperative that policies moving forward protect those who are most vulnerable while ensuring equity in access to those protections.”
  • Youth Detention Admissions Remain Low, But Releases Stall Despite COVID-19 The Annie E. Casey Foundation, July, 2020“In the months since the pandemic emerged in March, the disparities in detention that disadvantage Black youth have gotten worse, solely because Black youth have been released at a slower rate than their white peers.”
  • COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons Brendan Saloner, Kalind Parish, Julie A. Ward, Grace DiLaura, Sharon Dolovich, July, 2020“The adjusted death rate in the prison population was 3.0 times higher than would be expected if the age and sex distributions of the US and prison populations were equal.”
  • Decarceration and Crime During COVID-19 ACLU, July, 2020“Over this time period, we found that the reduction in jail population was functionally unrelated to crime trends in the following months.”
  • Illinois Failing Key Pillar of COVID-19 Response: Prisons Remain Crowded While Early Releases Exacerbate Racial Inequity Restore Justice, June, 2020“White people are being released from prison at much higher rates--and much earlier--than their Black and Latino peers. While white people comprise just 32 percent of the Illinois prison population, they account for nearly half of all early releases.”
  • Helping People Transition From Incarceration to Society During a Pandemic Health in Justice Action Lab, Data for Progress, and the Justice Collaborative Institute, May, 2020“66% of respondents, including 61% of those identifying as Republican, support a program that would help those reentering society obtain work, training and/ or education to ensure they are able to provide for themselves.”
  • Limiting COVID-19 Transmission and Mitigating the Adverse Consequences of a COVID-19 Outbreak in Correctional Settings: RELEASE * COHORT * TEST AMEND & Berkeley School of Public Health, May, 2020“As the COVID-19 epidemic sweeps into correctional institutions around the nation, these critical actions must be urgently prioritized by system and political leaders in order to avert a health and humanitarian disaster among incarcerated people...”
  • Racial Disparities in NYPD's COVID-19 Policing: Unequal Enforcement of 311 Social Distancing Calls The Legal Aid Society, May, 2020“Although the official data released by the city is limited and incomplete, the data that is available demonstrates the disproportionate impacts of the NYPD's pandemic policing on Black and Latino New Yorkers.”
  • States Must Do More to Protect Youth Behind Bars During COVID-19 Pandemic Youth First Initiative, May, 2020“Overall, we found that few states reported any public information, data or actions to protect youth during the COVID-19 pandemic and only a handful of states publicly reported actions to adequately protect youth.”
  • Modeling COVID-19 and impacts on U.S. Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, 2020 Irvine et al., April, 2020“Preventing the rapid spread necessitates intervention measures such as granting ICE detainees widespread release from an unsafe environment by returning them to the community.”
  • Recommendations for Rapid Release and Reentry During the COVID-19 Pandemic NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management, April, 2020“[The assumptions and recommendations in this report] provide guidance to agencies supporting rapid release from incarceration and community reentry in response to COVID-19.”
  • Flattening the Curve: Why Reducing Jail Populations Is Key to Beating COVID-19 ACLU, Washington State University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Tennessee, April, 2020“Models projecting total U.S. fatalities to be under 100,0001 may be underestimating deaths by almost another 100,000 if we continue to operate jails as usual.”
  • report thumbnail How prepared are state prison systems for a viral pandemic? Prison Policy Initiative, April, 2020“Most prisons are still aiming to keep the virus out of their facilities, rather than focusing on how to minimize the harm to incarcerated people, to their staff and to society as a whole”
  • Policing in a Time of Pandemic: Recommendations for Law Enforcement Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Georgetown Law Innovative Policing Program, April, 2020“Traditional law enforcement practices such as stops, searches, and arrests currently create a substantial risk of infection for police, suspects and community members alike.”
  • How to find and interpret crime data during the coronavirus pandemic: 5 tips Prison Policy Initiative, April, 2020“We outline five things to keep in mind about crime data trends during the pandemic, including a few tips for where to look for information about your local area.”
  • At Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Dramatic and Rapid Reductions in Youth Detention The Annie E. Casey Foundation, April, 2020“A survey of juvenile justice agencies in 30 state finds that the number of young people in local secure detention centers fell by 24% in March 2020, a sign that the coronavirus pandemic is dramatically altering the juvenile justice system.”
  • Five ways the criminal justice system could slow the pandemic Prison Policy Initiative, March, 2020“Given the toll COVID-19 has already taken on our jails and prisons, as well as our society at large, the time is now for federal, state, and local officials to put public health before punishment.”

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