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COVID-19 and the criminal justice system

The Prison Policy Initiative is tracking pandemic-related criminal justice policy changes, issuing recommendations to state and local criminal justice agencies, and busting common myths about COVID-19 and the justice system. We're also curating the most valuable work produced by our allies.

In June, we published a 50-state report:

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We worked with the ACLU to evaluate — and score — all 50 states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails.

Our other major resources:

We’ve also published several other resources:

Other important work

The Prison Policy Initiative is just one organization in a broad movement. While preparing the above, we've also identified some the most powerful materials created elsewhere in the movement and organized them into the below lists. We can't list everything, so we choose to prioritize materials that we thought would be the easiest for other advocates to adapt to the specifics of their local work.

Medical research

  • The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article from physicians in Boston and NYC arguing for rapid decarceration. The authors cite the "physical impossibility" of social distancing, the dangerously high risk for severe infection and death among incarcerated populations, and the burden on prison health care systems as the main reasons to "drastically" reduce the populations of jails and prisons.
  • In a new report, the ACLU — in collaboration with researchers at Washington State University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Tennessee — found that if jails continue to operate as usual, the number of U.S. fatalities due to COVID-19 could increase by another 100,000. They recommend swift intervention at multiple levels of government to reduce jail populations and prevent the number of fatalities in the U.S. from doubling.
  • In a recent article published by the New England Journal of Medicine, physicians from across the country argue that decarceration is a necessary step to mitigate the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors explain that adequate social distancing and healthcare are just not possible in correctional facilities. They outline a number of common-sense steps that the justice system needs to take: releasing as many people as possible, reducing arrests, bookings, and sentencing, isolating people who contract the virus, and hospitalizing the seriously ill. To protect public health, they argue, fewer people need to be behind bars.
  • A recent 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.
  • The peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs published an article explaining the unique challenges incarcerated people face in the age of COVID-19, and recommending prison and jail releases and other policies to slow viral transmission. The journal also published a second article recommending ways to protect and support people released from custody during the pandemic.
  • In the first statewide study of COVID-19 in prisons in jails, researchers found that in Massachusetts, the rate of COVID-19 among incarcerated individuals was three times that of the general Massachusetts population and five times the U.S. rate. However, because jails have not conducted mass testing, it is likely that COVID-19 is even more prevalent than the data suggests.

Selected demand letters and policy recommendations:

These are examples of some of the most powerful demand letters and policy recommendations made by experts around the country. (Again, we aren't trying to list everything, but wanted to highlight the materials that we've found the most useful in our work or that we thought would be the most applicable to the largest number of people and organizations.)

  • Several organizations have recommended programs and policies to support people being released from prisons and jails during the pandemic:
    • A coalition of formerly incarcerated people and current volunteers and employees of the Indiana correctional system proposed a model emergency release plan that addresses housing, quarantine, and healthcare issues.
    • The Justice Collaborative Institute published a report in early May recommending ways to secure housing, medical care, smartphones, and other critical resources for returning citizens.
    • The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the National Sheriffs' Association created a checklist for correctional facilities to prepare people for release and reentry. The checklist addresses COVID-19 testing, legal discharge processes, basic needs, and medical and substance abuse treatment.
    • Amend at the University of California San Francisco released a short policy paper recommending ways to release people from prisons and "cohort" those still incarcerated to slow the spread of the virus.
  • Advocates in Cook County, Illinois, Los Angeles, and Detroit published demands for the release of people from local jails.
  • The NYC Board of Corrections (an independent oversight body) released a statement calling for the immediate release of people who are over 50 years old, have underlying health conditions, are detained for administrative reasons such as failure to appear, and people serving sentences of less than one year.
  • The Bail Project released 6 sensible demands for jails to protect the public by: 1) releasing people who are held because they cannot afford a cash bond, 2) utilizing "cite and release" for people charged with misdemeanors, 3) prioritizing release for people in vulnerable demographics, 4) reducing conditions and restrictions around release, 5) protecting meaningful access to counsel and pretrial support, and 6) providing appropriate care and hygiene to those who remain incarcerated.
  • Fair and Just Prosecution released a joint statement from numerous elected prosecutors recommending use of cite and release policies, releasing those people detained because they cannot afford bail, release vulnerable people, and eliminate medical copays.
  • Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice released a statement -- endorsed by current and former youth corrections administrators -- making recommendations for youth correctional facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Their recommendations include population reduction, elimination of fines and fees, and opportunities for detained youth to communicate with family.
  • On March 23, the CDC released guidelines for correctional and detention facilties to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, staff, visitors, and the community at large.

Polling data:

Data for Progress conducted a survey of 2,509 likely voters and found that across political parties, support for criminal justice reform to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 was strong. Respondents supported the reduction of jail and prison populations, releasing people within 6 months of completing their sentences, releasing at-risk individuals, and reducing unnecessary jail admissions.

Tools for legal action and advocacy:

The Civil Rights Corps released a template for emergency motions for pretrial release that advocates can file in any criminal case.

Other COVID-19 information aggregators:

With thousands of jurisdictions making ongoing policy changes, and local advocacy groups across the country issuing new demands, it's impossible to track all ongoing developments in one place. But if you can't find what you need from any of the above, these other resources would be the next best place to start:

  • Professor Sharon Dolovich at the UCLA School of Law has shared a growing comprehensive spreadsheet with results from a state-by-state survey of COVID-19 fatalities in prisons, changes in visitor policies, requests for population reduction, and actions taken to reduce the incarcerated population.
  • The NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management conducted a 10-state survey of community supervision policy changes during COVID-19 in late March 2020. The results span a number of policies, including in-person office visits, field contacts, PPE availability, drug tests, fees, and treatments, and responses to technical violations of supervision.
  • The Litmus Program at the NYU Marron Institute generated 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 Appeal is tracking demands and local and state government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This information is organized both geographically and chronologically and includes policies regarding the justice system, elections, healthcare and insurance, and paid sick leave.
  • 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.
  • 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 Justice Management Institute has catalogued updates on criminal justice system responses to COVID-19 at the state and local levels, including changes being made by jails systems, law enforcement agencies, probation and parole systems, prosecutors, and public defenders.
  • 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 serves as an index of 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.
  • COVID-19 Behind Bars is an independent journalism project tracking cases of coronavirus in jails, prisons, detention centers, and other correctional facilities in the U.S. and internationally using news reports and potential cases reported on by people inside prison.
  • Reform Georgia is specifically tracking changes in prison and jail populations in Georgia and publishing data highlights on their website.
  • 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.

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