COVID-19 and the criminal justice system
From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that densely packed prisons and jails — the result of decades of mass incarceration in the U.S. — offered ideal conditions for the transmission of the coronavirus. Several months later, the virus has claimed thousands of lives behind bars and infected 1 out of every 3 people in prison.
The Prison Policy Initiative is providing data the public needs to demand a humane response to this pandemic. We're illuminating the worst problems in the criminal justice system — as well as the most promising opportunities for change.
States of Emergency: The Failure of Prison System Responses to COVID-19
by Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma
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
- How much have COVID-19 releases changed prison and jail populations? — Our June analysis (updating earlier analyses from February, December, September, August, and May) finds that the initial efforts to reduce jail populations have slowed and state prison population declines are primarily the result of reduced admissions, not increased releases.
- Criminal justice responses to the COVID-19 pandemic — Our regularly-updated list of the most significant recent policy changes in state and local governments.
- Just over half of incarcerated people are vaccinated despite being locked in COVID-19 epicenters — Most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, many in prison are still vulnerable to infection.
- A publication from the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars team reveals that COVID-19 reduced the life expectancy of people in Florida prisons by 4 years.
- With the majority of corrections officers declining the COVID-19 vaccine, incarcerated people are still at serious risk — Analysis of data from 37 prison systems shows that less than half of prison staff are vaccinated in most states.
- Parole boards approved fewer releases in 2020 than in 2019, despite the raging pandemic — Instead of releasing more people to the safety of their homes, parole boards in many states held fewer hearings and granted fewer approvals during the ongoing, deadly pandemic.
- More states need to use their “good time” systems to get people out of prison during COVID-19 — Most states have statutes that allow incarcerated people to earn time off of their sentences. Why aren't more states using this tool to safely reduce prison populations during COVID-19?
- Stimulus, round 2: Incarcerated people will be eligible for new round of payments — At the end of an otherwise disappointing session of Congress, the inclusion of incarcerated people in the stimulus program is a small ray of hope.
- Prisons shouldn’t be charging medical co-pays – especially during a pandemic — Our December survey of medical co-pay policies shows that some states are reinstating medical co-pays as COVID-19 continues to spread in prisons.
- 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.
- Incarcerated people and corrections staff should be prioritized in COVID-19 vaccination plans — Our short 50-state report breaks down whether states are planning to vaccinate incarcerated people and corrections staff early.
- Half of states fail to require mask use by correctional staff — 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.
- Failing Grades: States' Responses to COVID-19 in Jails and Prisons — We worked with the ACLU to evaluate the actions every state had taken by the summer of 2020 to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. Our 50-state report includes a detailed appendix providing details about each state.
- What do we know about the spread — and toll — of the coronavirus in state prisons? — Wide variation in the rates of reported infections and deaths in state prisons reflect the uneven spread of the virus and disparate responses by state criminal justice systems.
- Compassionate release was never designed to release large numbers of people — With help from artist Kevin Pyle, we explain why very few people who apply for compassionate release are approved, even during a pandemic.
- When parole doesn’t mean release: The senseless “program requirements” keeping people behind bars during a pandemic — We explain why thousands of people who have been approved for parole release are still behind bars.
- Since you asked: Should incarcerated people be receiving stimulus payments? Some correctional authorities - responding to bad guidance from the IRS - are intercepting stimulus checks for incarcerated people. We explain why people in prison and jail are eligible for, and should be receiving, emergency aid.
- Is social distancing possible behind bars? — The short answer is no. Social distancing is even harder behind bars than in nursing homes or on cruise ships.
- Large-scale prison releases and public safety We offer 14 recent historical examples to show that large-scale releases are possible without spikes in crime.
- The “services” offered by jails don’t make them safe places for vulnerable people. — Why no one is better off in jail during a pandemic, even people in need of social services.
- Five ways the criminal justice system could slow the pandemic — We explain which criminal justice officials (and elected leaders) are responsible for preventing a human tragedy during the pandemic, and what policy steps they should take in order to do so.
- Our template letter for advocates to send to prisons and jails that have suspended in-person visits, requesting that phone and video calling fees be temporarily eliminated so that families can stay in touch.
- See more resources
If you'd rather see a curated list of the most important data about your state, check out our state profiles pages.
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.
- 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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