COVID-19 and the criminal justice system


More than a year and a half into the pandemic, the crisis behind bars is far from over. One in every three people in prisons has already contracted the coronavirus. As states fail to take action, crowded facilities and inadequate vaccination efforts mean incarcerated people are still needlessly being infected and dying of COVID-19.

The Prison Policy Initiative is providing data the public needs to demand a humane response to this pandemic. We're illuminating the worst policy failures — as well as the most promising opportunities for change.

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    States of Emergency: The Failure of Prison System Responses to COVID-19
    by Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma
    September 2021

    From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that densely packed prisons and jails presented dangerous conditions for the transmission of COVID-19. In this report, we evaluated departments of corrections on their responses to the pandemic related to population reduction, infection and mortality rates, vaccination, and other policies.

Our data and analyses

Explainers

50-State Data

If you'd rather see a curated list of the most important data about your state, check out our state profiles pages.

Our visuals

We've created several powerful infographics illustrating prisons' failure to protect incarcerated people during the pandemic, including:

  • Our 50-state map showing that few states made significant efforts to reduce prison populations between early 2020 and July 2021
  • A three-year chart showing that the number of people released from state prisons each month has been falling since 2019, in at least 10 states with available release data

For more, see a full list of maps and visualizations describing the dire state of the pandemic in prisons and jails.

Other important work

The Prison Policy Initiative is just one organization in a broad movement. While preparing the above, we've also curated a few lists of the most powerful materials created elsewhere in the movement. We chose to prioritize materials that we thought would be the easiest for other advocates to adapt to the specifics of their local work.

Medical research:

  • Multiple medical journals have published articles calling for reducing prison and jail populations, as well as implementing other policies, to slow down the coronavirus. These include the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the New England Journal of Medicine, and Health Affairs.
  • In a report published in April, the ACLU — in collaboration with researchers at Washington State University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Tennessee — found that if jails continued to operate as usual, the number of U.S. fatalities due to COVID-19 could increase by another 100,000. They recommended swift intervention at multiple levels of government to reduce jail populations and prevent the number of fatalities in the U.S. from doubling.
  • A July CDC study on COVID-19 testing in prison had two major findings. First, testing people who had had contact with the virus identified more people who were positive for COVID-19 than just testing people experiencing symptoms. Second, the researchers found that serial (repeated) testing of people helped identify people who were asymptomatic; this allowed for early detection, isolation, and treatment, which slow the transmission of the virus. States should not just test the incarcerated population and correction staff once; to save the most lives in and out of prison, states need to be regularly testing all incarcerated people and staff, regardless of the presence of symptoms.
  • Health Affairs published an article in April recommending ways to protect and support people released from custody during the pandemic.
  • In early September, the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice released a report that found the rate of COVID-19 cases in prisons was more than four times that of the general population and the COVID-19 mortality rate in prisons was twice as large as that of the general U.S. population.

Data and information aggregators:

  • The UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project is tracking the spread and impact of the novel coronavirus in American carceral facilities, with state by state data on case numbers, fatalities, and more. Data from the project is available on both an interactive website and a comprehensive Google Sheet.
  • The State Prison COVID-19 Risk Tracker, created by the Litmus Program at the NYU Marron Institute, is a census of state adult correctional and detention facilities with an interactive mapping tool of county-level data on COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths, showing which facilities are located in or near counties that are at high risk for community transmissions of COVID-19.
  • The Fines and Fees Justice Center is actively tracking federal, state, and local changes to criminal, traffic, and municipal ordinance fines and fees policies. On the same page, the FFJC also provides two concise but thorough lists of policy recommendations for communities and for the justice system.
  • Professor Margo Schlanger at the University of Michigan Law School is tracking all COVID-19 class-action and group litigation (jails, prisons, immigration detention) cases at the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse.
  • The Sentencing Project created a tool to track known cases of COVID-19 diagnoses in juvenile facilities among incarcerated youth and the facility staff across the county.
  • The Marshall Project is tracking articles from across the web on the risks of coronavirus across the U.S. justice system.
  • The Justice Collaborative COVID-19 Response and Resource page offers resource lists, fact sheets, example demand letters, and tracks active demand campaigns throughout the U.S.
  • The Urban Institute has a curated list of COVID-19 resources for leaders in international, federal, state, and local governments, as well as advocacy organizations.
  • This crowdsourced spreadsheet lists authorities (medical, legal, governmental) speaking out about the risks to incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This resource is being used by advocates who are writing petitions or pressuring decision-makers to take action.
  • Professor Aaron Littman at the UCLA School of Law has compiled a spreadsheet to help readers understand which local officials have the power to release people from jails. The information in the spreadsheet is state-specific.


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