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Reducing Jail and Prison Populations During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Prisons, jails, and other correctional authorities must make every effort to release unnecessarily incarcerated people and improve healthcare and conditions of confinement.

Last Updated: December 4, 2020
Published: March 27, 2020

Prisons and jails frequently suffer from overcrowding. Even in the best of times they are, by definition, facilities where people are placed in close contact with each other on a near-constant basis. Factor in the unique health challenges faced by incarcerated people and the limited availability of quality healthcare, and it’s no surprise that correctional facilities are uniquely vulnerable to diseases such as Covid-19.

Correctional administrators have limited control over how long people spend incarcerated, but they can use what authority they possess to release people outright or direct people to less restrictive forms of confinement. They can also ease conditions of confinement and increase access to health products. Some correctional authorities have already begun this work.

Between March and June, more than 100,000 people were released from state and federal prisons. According to analyses by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, this constitutes an 8% decrease in the national prison population since the pandemic started.

Reducing Jail and Prison Populations

Brennan Center Recommendation: Elderly and sick people and those incarcerated for parole violations should be released or recommended for release under compassionate release provisions or another authority. Barring that, prison officials should use their discretion to transfer people to community corrections options.

Spring 2020

  • On April 6, Attorney General Barr sent a memo to federal prosecutors urging them to consider Covid-19 related risk when making bail decisions. The memo cited the risk inherent in increasing jail populations during the pandemic, as well as concerns about risks to individuals. Notably, the memo still instructs prosecutors to detain people who pose a public safety threat, despite concerns about the virus. 
  • On March 31, the Bureau of Prisons announced that, effective April 1, everyone currently incarcerated in the federal prison system would be confined to their cell for 14 days.
  • On April 5, the Bureau of Prisons issued an update to their home confinement policy in response to Covid-19. Notably, individuals can be released to home confinement without submitting a request. At the same time, anyone who thinks they're eligible for home confinement may apply for release and provide a release plan to their case manager. 
  • On April 20, some people incarcerated in BOP custody were told that officials were no longer considering early releases for inmates who have served less than half their sentence, a reversal of an April 9 announcement from BOP staffers. According to advocates and family members, many individuals had already been put into pre-release quarantine before the reversal was announced. 
  • As of April 23, the Trump Administration once again changed the criteria used to consider incarcerated individuals for early release. The new standard broadened the conditions for release to include incarcerated individuals who have served at least 25 percent of their sentences and who have less than 18 months remaining on their term. 
  • On May 12, a federal judge ordered a federal prison in Connecticut to speed up its process for releasing incarcerated people who are at serious risk for COVID-19. The court found that prison officials' failure to quickly release at-risk individuals, thereby putting them at risk of serious harm, was in violation of the 8th Amendment. 
  • On May 20, the BOP asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt a federal judge's order to release or transfer incarcerated individuals from FCI Elkton in Ohio. On May 26, the Supreme Court announced that they would not block U.S. District Judge James Gwin's order to move at-risk incarcerated individuals from FCI Elkton. 

Summer 2020

  • By June, local jails across the country had largely followed three trajectories. The most common pattern, occurring in 527 counties studied by the Vera Institute, was a sharp decline in jail populations in March that remained low as the pandemic continued. In 270 other counties, the jail population quickly declined at the beginning of the pandemic, but soon began increasing again--reaching pre-pandemic levels by the summer. In 454 additional counties across the country, jail populations never decreased in response to the pandemic.
  • On July 14, US District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall ruled that federal prison authorities must begin transferring medically vulnerable people from Lompoc, CA’s prison complex to home confinement, after a Covid outbreak at the prison killed four incarcerated people and infected more than 1,000 others. Judge Marshall found that the BOP had “likely been deliberately indifferent to the known urgency to consider inmates for home confinement, particularly those most vulnerable to severe illness or death.”
  • On August 21, a group of public health officials in Massachusetts released a study calling for decarceration in the state’s carceral facilities by showing that the rate of Covid-19 among incarcerated individuals is at least three times that of the general Massachusetts population and five times the U.S. rate.
  • On August 28, a federal judge began considering appointing a "special liaison" in charge of reducing Covid-19 exposure risks in North Carolina's prison system, in response to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, ACLU, and others.
  • On September 4th, the Washington state prison system proposed a significant restructuring that includes a "significant and permanent reduction in prison population". Changes include direct prison population reductions, sentencing reforms, and alterations to community supervision/support.

Fall 2020

  • Despite Attorney General Barr’s instructions to utilize compassionate release, home confinement, and other release levers to protect elderly and at-risk populations from Covid-19 exposure behind bars, federal prosecutors in Florida argued against the release of Atilano Dominguez (an 80-year-old man serving a life sentence for marijuana-related convictions) because COVID-19 is simply "one more way to perish in prison."
  • According to data obtained by the Marshall Project and published on October 7, 10,940 federal prisoners applied for compassionate release in the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Wardens approved only 156 of those petitions, denying or ignoring over 98 percent of petitions.
  • On October 3, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation to require weekly Covid-19 testing in federal prisons. Sen. Warren also joined with Senator Richard Durbin to send letters to Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, suggesting that the government has failed to respond to Covid-19 in its carceral facilities. The letters additionally question the BOP’s reliance on solitary confinement to isolate those who are diagnosed with Covid-19, rather than granting compassionate release.
  • The recent spree of federal executions by the Trump Administration at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, has been linked to a coronavirus outbreak at the facility. A BOP staff member involved in the first execution on July 14 tested positive for the virus, after reporting extensive contact with incarcerated people and other staff members at the prison. The BOP did not test everyone in the facility, nor did the department require infected staff members to quarantine for a full 14 days, allowing them to return to work after just 10 days without symptoms and without being retested.
  • On October 22, after reviewing evidence that an employee in a Vermont prison was infected with Covid-19 after repeated, short interactions with incarcerated individuals who had contracted the virus, the CDC updated its definition of a close contact with a Covid-19 patient to include multiple, brief exposures.
  • The federal Bureau of Prisons resumed in-person visitation in October, after seven months of banning social visitation. No physical contact is allowed, and individual facilities may pause visitation at any point in response to outbreak concerns.

Winter 2020

  • On December 2, the Prison Policy Initiative released data illustrating the nation's failure to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 infection behind bars. The report states that: "While state prison populations have slowly declined from pre-pandemic levels, the pace of these modest reductions has slowed since the spring, even as national infection rates continue to rise." Additionally, the country's network of county jails have failed to implement reductions that were promised months ago. These failures have brought deadly consequences to incarcerated people across the country, and the inhumane risks will continue until the pandemic ends or the system acts to release people.

State/Local Responses

Alabama

  • In April, the Alabama DOC opened a dedicated coronavirus quarantine ward at Draper Correctional Facility, which had been closed in 2018 due to unsanitary and inhumane conditions, such as “rats, maggots, open sewage and toxic fumes”. People incarcerated there during the pandemic have reported no working toilets, no social distancing, insufficient Covid-19 testing, and limited access to hygiene and sanitary products.
  • On July 14, Alabama DOC announced expanded testing protocols in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19 in its correctional facilities. Previously, only inmates showing symptoms, those leaving for medical appointments, or new admissions to a facility were tested. 
  • On September 21, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report illustrating that Alabama has been mass-denying the parole applications of incarcerated people who are particularly at-risk of contracting Covid-19.

Alaska

  • On April 15, Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom announced that early release for incarcerated people with elevated Covid-19 risk “is not on the table”.
  • As of July 1, all people entering a jail in Alaska will be tested for Covid-19 and placed in 14-day quarantine within the facility, totaling about 600 people tested each week. Anyone leaving or entering jails, such as those transferring between facilities or exiting for medical appointments, will also be tested.
  • On November 3, the Alaska Department of Corrections announced that at least 22 incarcerated people, plus five staff members, at the Goose Creek Correctional Center have tested positive for Covid-19. This outbreak follows one at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, which reported at least 88 positive tests during the month of October.

Arizona

  • Advocates in Arizona have been calling for an immediate stop to prison admissions, after officials announced on August 4 that 517 people (nearly half of the incarcerated population) at Tucson’s Whetstone Unit have tested positive for Covid. Only a small portion of people incarcerated in Arizona state prisons have been tested for the coronavirus.
  • By September, 2,577 incarcerated people in Arizona had tested positive for the coronavirus, a number that is likely much lower than the actual rate of infection--incarcerated people have been reporting for months that they are not able to easily access testing, common areas are not being safely maintained, and that they are not being given necessities such as soap, cleaning supplies, and masks.
  • According to a memo released on November 17 by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, the county's dramatic rise in infections is at least partially attributable to an outbreak at its federal prison. The facility reported 500 infections in the two weeks prior, but on-site medical services continue to be limited to “outpatient acute care” from a team of four nurse practitioners or mid-level providers, 12 supporting nurses/paramedics and the facility's medical director.

Arkansas

  • On April 19, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas announced that his office is asking the state's parole board to compile a list of people to be considered for release due to Covid-19. The list is limited to those convicted of nonviolent offenses and those who are due for release within the next 6 months. 
  • By June 2, over 1,200 people had been made eligible for parole consideration under the Covid-19 considerations. However, only 300 of them had been released.

California

  • On March 18, Gov. Newsom of California signed an executive order that includes $50 million to lease hotel rooms or buy travel trailers for homeless people, including those recently released from jails.
  • On March 31, California decided to release 3,500 incarcerated individuals in an attempt to reduce overcrowding in state prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic. The accelerated prison discharges apply to those who were set to be released within the next 60 days.
  • As of April 19, Los Angeles County has released close to 25 percent of its jail population.
  • San Francisco has made significant progress in reducing its jail population. As of May 5, San Francisco's jail population was 715, down from 1,110 in early March. 
  • On May 1, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County announced that 250 people are set to be released from jail to help combat the spread of Covid-19. This announcement came after a statewide ruling that sets bail amounts to $0 for many misdemeanor and some felony offenses. 
  • On Tuesday, June 16, the California DOC announced that they will be releasing about 3,500 additional incarcerated individuals due to COVID-19. Their “community supervision plan” will allow the release of people who have six months or less to serve on their sentences, on the condition that they remain “under close supervision” for the rest of their sentence.
  • On July 6, California replaced its state correction system’s top medical officer. The announcement came after Gov. Newsom criticized the transfer of hundreds of people to San Quentin, who had been incarcerated at a Chino facility with a bad outbreak, resulting in six deaths as of July 6. Newsom announced that the population at San Quentin would be reduced by about 900 people over the next few weeks.
  • In the first week of July, active cases at San Quentin State Prison in California increased from 1,000 to nearly 1,400, or by 40%. People incarcerated there reported horrific conditions, as well as widespread illness and death. The prison is currently housing about 700 people over its capacity.
  • The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced on July 29 that it was suspending intake at multiple youth facilities due to a recent spike in juvenile cases, after restarting intake on May 26.
  • In Sacramento County, Sheriff Scott Jones has refused to provide COVID-19 testing and case information to an oversight board in charge of monitoring the state’s jails. 
  • On August 6, state prison officials in California announced that as many as 17,600 people incarcerated there may be released early due to the coronavirus. This would be 70% more than previously estimated, and may include some people incarcerated for violent offenses.
  • As of Aug. 28, the California state prison system has identified 10,377 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 859 of which tested positive in the last two weeks. For the first time in months, the San Quentin prison has reported less than 50 cases, with no new positive cases in the last two weeks.
  • By September 29, California officials reported that half of all those incarcerated in the Folsom State Prison have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • On October 20, a three-judge panel in the 1st District Court of Appeals ordered that the San Quentin state prison must release or transfer more than 1,000 people currently incarcerated there, "after showing 'deliberate indifference' to prisoners’ health during an outbreak of the novel coronavirus". Under the ruling, San Quentin can house no more than 1,775 people - a steep reduction from the 2,900 people at the facility at the time of the decision.
  • On November 24, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles reported 231 active cases of Covid-19 within its walls, 219 among incarcerated people and 12 between staff members. This flood of cases represents the fourth largest active outbreak in the federal prison system in the pandemic so far, and the facility shut down all visits in response.

Colorado

  • On March 25, the Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order that places a moratorium on new prison intakes during the pandemic. It also grants the director of the Department of Corrections broad authority to release people within 180 days of their parole eligibility date and to suspend limits on awarding earned time.
  • As of September 9, judges in Colorado had granted only 12% of early release requests related to Covid-19.
  • On November 4, the El Paso County jail reported 755 cases of Covid-19 in a single week after the Sheriff's Office completed testing for all people incarcerated there. The same day, outbreaks were ongoing at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center (742 cases, nine more than the week before), the Sterling Correctional Facility (706 cases, 21 more than the week before), and the Fremont Correctional Facility (583 cases, up 164 from the week before).
  • On Sunday, November 8, the El Paso County Jail reported that 859 of the 1,246 people incarcerated there tested positive for the coronavirus, in addition to 66 staff members.
  • On November 19, the Jefferson County Detention Facility reported that 57 incarcerated people and 13 employees tested positive for COVID-19. Though they are conducting regular testing, results continue to be delayed between seven and nine days, resulting in confusion and continued transmission with the facility.

Connecticut

  • In May, the DOC Commissioner of Connecticut granted discretionary release to 560 people who had served at least 40% of their sentences.
  • Following a federal lawsuit, as of June 6, the Connecticut Department of Correction is now required to identify people 65 and older who meet specific medical criteria to “fast track” them for release consideration. 
  • Families and advocates of people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons have continued to push for the release of those held on bail across the state, who face elevated risks of exposure to Covid-19 behind bars without even being convicted of any crime. On October 1, more than 2,800 people were held on bail in Connecticut's correctional facilities, more than 60 percent of whom had bond amounts of $100,000 or higher.

Delaware

  • Delaware’s Sussex Correctional Institution reported 130 cases on July 10, after all of Delaware’s state prisons were declared Covid-free in late May. SCI reported its first three cases on July 1, and the cases increased to 58 by July 6, doubling as of the 10th.

District of Columbia

  • After DC reduced its jail population by 500 inmates, a US District judge ordered changes on June 18 to better protect incarcerated individuals from COVID-19 at the DC Jail. She noted that there was evidence that the DOC was “aware of the risks” and “disregarded those risks” by failing to take appropriate steps to stem the virus’s spread.

Florida

  • As of August 7, at least 14 parole-eligible men have died behind bars in Florida from Covid-19. The Florida House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, continues to claim that it is not an “acceptable approach” to let people out of prison because of the pandemic.
  • Just before Thanksgiving, the Florida Department of Corrections began re-allowing visitation to its facilities, under a "modified visitation" plan. No visit can exceed three hours, and plastic screens separate incarcerated people from their visitors. No form of physical contact is permitted, vending machines are off-limits for visitors, and no children under 12 are allowed in the facilities. Despite concerns about the virus being brought by visitors, corrections officers and other staffers have not been isolated in any way and continue to enter and leave the facilities every day.

Georgia

  • On September 14, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a letter urging the Department of Justice to intervene in Georgia’s prison system to address the state’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Concerns in the letter include understaffing, unprecedented suicide rates in response to “extreme neglect of persons with psychiatric disabilities”, homicides within the prisons, and riots that have broken out in multiple facilities after incarcerated people were “left locked in their cells, nearly 24/7, for weeks or months, often in reprehensible conditions”.

Hawai’i

  • Beginning August 19, some incarcerated individuals in Hawai'i's largest jail were released early due to the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak inside OCCC.
  • By late November, the Covid-19 outbreak among people incarcerated out of the Hawaii prison system serving time in a privately operated facility in Arizona had grown into the largest infection cluster in the Hawaii correctional system. More than half of the people serving time at the Arizona facility were infected, and one incarcerated person was confirmed to have died on Tuesday, November 19.

Idaho 

  • As of September 28, nearly 30% of men incarcerated in Idaho who had been transferred to a private prison in Arizona have tested positive for Covid-19.

Illinois

  • On September 8, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned key parts of an earlier court order that prevented the Cook County Jail from using double-occupancy cells or dorm-style housing, both of which have been exacerbating components of Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails.

Indiana

  • The state of Indiana has allowed county courts to decide whether people would be released early from state prisons, after Gov. Holcomb stated in March that he did not “believe in releasing those low-level offenders.” As a result, only 3.8% of Indiana’s prison population was released between March and June.
  • To prevent the spread of Covid-19 this summer, the Indiana Women’s Prison prison has been locking the doors to housing units, but the units do not have air conditioning. Women incarcerated there are reported to have passed out from heat exhaustion and experienced seizures.

Iowa

  • On April 20, the Iowa Department of Corrections announced that the DOC is in the process of letting 482 incarcerated people out early to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19. 90 more people have been approved for future releases.
  • Iowa, as the only state without a compassionate release law, employed a second parole board to prioritize the release of medically vulnerable incarcerated people. By September 14, the state’s incarcerated population was at a 20-year low.
  • In one weekend, the number of Covid-19 cases in the Iowa prison system jumped from 601 to 1,136. On November 8, the Iowa Department of Corrections announced that the Anamosa State Penitentiary housed 485 active cases, while the Clarinda Correctional Facility reported 368 cases over the weekend and the North Central Correctional Facility reported 253 active cases.
  • The Iowa Department of Corrections reported its first Covid-19-related staff death on November 18, in addition to three deaths of incarcerated people in the same week.

Kansas

  • On April 9, the ACLU filed a class-action petition asking the Kansas Supreme Court to immediately release incarcerated people in Kansas DOC facilities who have preexisting medical conditions, which leave them especially vulnerable to Covid-19. The petition also seeks to immediately free incarcerated individuals who are within 18 months of completing their sentences as well as those imprisoned for minor offenses.
  • In response to a mid-July second spike in Covid-19 cases, Kansas prisons are attempting to spread out dormitory housing, which comprises about a third of the state’s prison beds. The Kansas DOC continues to dispute accusations by incarcerated people that there are not sufficient hygienic practices or PPE available in the prisons.
  • On November 12, Sheriff David Duke announced that the Wichita County Jail would limit new admissions to the jail, only holding people charged with "serious felonies and violent crimes."

Kentucky

  • On March 30, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order that will release nearly 900 people detained in state prison, in the state's first phase of reducing their prison population. Before their release, each individual will be tested for Covid-19 and the state will verify whether they have a home in which they can be quarantined. 
  • In response to a late-July spike in cases, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear authorized the early release of nearly 700 more individuals from state prisons at the beginning of August. The release criteria is the same as those used in the early release of 1,200 individuals at the onset of the pandemic, prioritizing those vulnerable to Covid-19 and excluding those convicted of sexual and violent crimes.

Louisiana 

  • Between March and June, the Louisiana Department of Corrections began a furlough program intended to reduce overcrowding and release those at highest risk of contracting Covid-19 behind bars. However, out of the 1,100 eligible cases, the review panel only considered 594 and released just 68 on furlough. Of those 68, only 34 have been entirely released from state custody. The panel was suspended in mid-June.

Maine 

  • By September 5, 46 people incarcerated at the York County Jail tested positive for coronavirus after an employee attended an indoor wedding then brought Covid-19 back to the jail. Before the outbreak, no one at the facility was required to wear a mask.
  • On November 3, the Maine Department of Corrections reported an outbreak at the Maine Correctional Center, with 72 incarcerated people testing positive for the coronavirus. The same week, at least nine staff members were also diagnosed with Covid-19.

Maryland

  • On April 19, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order that expedites the release of individuals incarcerated at state prisons who were eligible for release within four months. The order also directs the Maryland Parole Commission to accelerate consideration of parole for individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes who are older than 60 and have an approved plan for re-entry to society. The Governor's office estimates that the order will altogether affect close to 800 people.
  • On April 27, Maryland's secretary of juvenile services announced that the state has released nearly 200 people from juvenile detention centers amid Covid-19 concerns. 
  • On October 21, Maryland's DOC reported that more than 70 incarcerated people and 16 employees at the Cecil County jail tested positive for Covid-19 within a week of each other, the largest outbreak in the Maryland state system since the pandemic began in March.
  • On November 17, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order that allows some incarcerated people to be released early, in an effort to stem the pandemic among both incarcerated people and prison employees. Under the order, those eligible for early release or home detention include people whose prison term is set to expire within the next four months and who are not serving time for a violent or sexual offense. Age, medical conditions, and other special needs are also to be considered in release decisions.

Massachusetts 

  • By June 4th, only ten people had been released from Massachusetts correctional facilities in response to Covid-19 concerns, despite outbreaks at multiple facilities. The Massachusetts Supreme Court declined to order immediate releases while simultaneously acknowledging concerning conditions in Massachusetts’ prisons, including a months-long lockdown, limited and inconsistent sanitization, and an inability to socially distance.
  • After ordering facility-wide Covid-19 testing at MCI Norfolk, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections reported on November 6th that at least 140 people held at the jail had tested positive. In response, the facility temporarily suspended in-person visits.
  • On November 14, outbreaks at multiple Massachusetts correctional facilities prompted the state to order two weeks of Covid-19 testing for all incarcerated people and staff members. All 16 state prisons entered modified lockdown to conduct tests, suspending in-person visitation but allowing attorney visits and releases to continue.
  • Facing a lawsuit and public pressure to release people into home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic, the Massachusetts Department of Correction began taking steps to implement a lackluster home confinement program that would release on 20 to 25 incarcerated people at a time. The program, set to launch in early 2021, follows the Department of Correction's decision to release two people on medical parole just hours before their deaths from Covid-19.

Michigan

  • On March 29, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order calling for the release of the following people from county jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers: elderly and/or chronically ill individuals, people who are pregnant, people who are nearing their release date, people who were incarcerated for a traffic violation or failure to appear or pay, and anyone with behavioral health problems who could safely be diverted for treatment. 
  • On May 21, Judge Linda Parker ruled that medically vulnerable people must be released from the Oakland County jail. The order required the jail, within three business days, to provide to the court a list of all medically vulnerable incarcerated individuals, their health vulnerabilities and their criminal histories. 
  • On August 15, Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order that requires jails and prisons to test individuals for Covid-19 upon entering, transferring to/from, or being released out of the state's facilities.
  • On October 14, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz reported that roughly 120 of the 300 staff members at Marquette's Branch Prison were not eligible to work because they had either been diagnosed with Covid-19, had symptoms and were awaiting test results, or had come into close contact with another staff member who tested positive. 

Minnesota

  • In April, Minnesota announced a plan to rely upon Conditional Medical Releases (CMRs) to reduce its prison population in response to Covid-19. Of the 2,300 applications received, the CMR board had only released 143 people by September 3. An additional 586 incarcerated people were deemed “at great risk,” but not released.
  • By September 24, roughly half of the 600 people incarcerated at the women’s prison in Waseca had contracted Covid-19, most within a two-week span. By September 30, the BOP reported that 70 percent of the women had tested positive.
  • On Saturday, October 10, Stillwater prison began a new lockdown period after discovering 90 positive cases of Covid-19 among the 1,273 people incarcerated there.
  • On October 22, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the Minnesota Department of Corrections and Commissioner Paul Schnell did not adequately protect incarcerated individuals from Covid-19 by failing to implement appropriate protocols to stop or slow virus transmission and denying medical release to high-risk individuals.
  • On November 13, the state prison in St. Cloud instituted a full lockdown after 53.7 percent of incarcerated people within the facility tested positive for Covid-19. Cases were found in every single unit of the prison, as well as among 59 staff members. The facility expressed that it would remain on lockdown until the outbreak receded.
  • As of Nov. 27, at least 941 incarcerated people at the Stillwater Correctional Facility have been diagnosed with Covid-19, a staggering 75 percent of the prison’s total population. At least one person has died. The prison had been under medical lockdown since Oct. 12, but this lockdown does not appear to have stemmed the outbreak within its walls.

Mississippi

  • Following a late-June outbreak at a correctional facility in Pearl, Mississippi, there have been 132 confirmed cases in Mississippi DOC facilities. Less than 2% of the 17,400 people in Mississippi state custody have been tested, as the MDOC has stated that only people with a fever and upper respiratory symptoms qualify for testing.
  • By September 28, only 1,087 incarcerated people had been tested for Covid-19 in Mississippi prisons, 601 of whom have received positive test results. 

Missouri 

  • By August 1, roughly 20 percent of the women incarcerated at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Missouri had tested positive for Covid-19, after Gov. Mike Parson refused to implement any coronavirus-related changes to prison operations except using federal funding for testing.
  • On September 11, incarcerated people and activists reported that “cleaning supplies have been ‘watered down’ at the Bonne Terre facility” in the Missouri Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, and that there “aren’t visible signs encouraging social distancing or hand-washing.”

Montana 

  • On September 28, private prison operator CoreCivic announced that over two dozen people incarcerated at the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby, Montana tested positive for Covid-19 in the span of two days. The facility does not plan to test all those incarcerated there, and has not released the number of people who will be tested.
  • On October 27, the Montana Army National Guard was dispatched to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak at the Deer Lodge state prison. 67 volunteer soldiers were sent to assist in distributing mail, meals, and laundry for at least two weeks, or as long as the outbreak continues. At the time of dispatch, the prison was struggling with 203 active cases among incarcerated people and at least 75 involving staff.

Nebraska 

  • On September 24, the Nebraska State Penitentiary entered a modified lockdown period, limiting internal movement due to staff absences because of Covid-19 cases. Over 100 incarcerated people have also tested positive inside the facility.
  • On November 24, Nebraska officials reported nearly 300 active cases of Covid-19 within the state's prisons. The announcement included 112 cases at the Omaha Corrections Center, 71 at the Lincoln Corrections Center and 98 at the prison in Tecumseh. Around 60 staff members also tested positive in the ten days prior to the announcement, and the Department of Corrections began investigating six deaths among incarcerated people that are likely related to the outbreak.

Nevada 

  • On April 27, Nevada’s Sentencing Commission rejected three separate proposals to even consider reducing the state’s incarcerated population, with one of its judges proclaiming that “we’re the ones who put those people in prison and I’m not interested in letting them out”.

New Hampshire 

  • By Wednesday, May 27, only 17 of the 2,360 people incarcerated by the New Hampshire Department of Corrections had received tests for Covid-19, despite continuing interstate transfers and intakes of newly incarcerated individuals.

New Jersey

  • On April 10, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans to sign an executive order to allow some "low risk" individuals to be moved to home confinement for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. To be eligible for release, an individual must be in an at-risk category, either because of age or health status. People whose sentences are about to expire in the next three months or who have been denied parole within the last year may also be eligible for release.
  • As of July 30, New Jersey lawmakers are expected to approve a bill that could free more than 3,000 people incarcerated in state prisons – nearly 20% of their total prison population. These widespread releases would be accomplished by allowing the release of people incarcerated for certain violent offenses, as well.
  • On September 13, the New Jersey legislature announced more plans to grant early releases to thousands of incarcerated people in its ongoing response to Covid-19. These releases would help justify a proposed $60 million cut to the New Jersey Department of Corrections budget.
  • On October 19, Gov. Phil Murphy signed S2519, reducing the sentences of thousands of people incarcerated in New Jersey state prisons. The law takes time off a person's sentence for every month spent behind bars during a public health emergency, first going into effect on November 4, 2020. The first round of early releases includes over 2,000 incarcerated people who have experienced the pandemic in the New Jersey correctional system, and releases will continue on a rolling basis as long as the public health emergency persists.
  • On November 4, New Jersey released 2,258 incarcerated people as part of one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population. Under S2519, at least 1,000 additional people are expected to be released by March — a 35 percent total reduction in New Jersey's prison population.
  • On November 9, a group of New Jersey state Congress members called for a pause in transfers to Fort Dix Correctional Institution, which at the time held the record for the second most ongoing cases of Covid-19 out of any federal prison. The lawmakers expressed "grave concerns" over how prison officials are managing the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
  • Prisoners and their family members of those incarcerated at Fort Dix have continued to raise alarm about the lack of medical treatment in the facility, describing people banging on their doors for hours in order to get medical attention, being only given Tylenol for their symptoms, and rarely being allowed access to a doctor or a nurse. 

New Mexico

  • On April 6, New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham signed an executive order releasing some people from prison in response to Covid-19. Only individuals who were scheduled to be released in the next 30 days are eligible, though the Governor's office noted that the list of eligible individuals will be reassessed every day. 

New York

  • On March 31, New York announced plans to release 1,100 people incarcerated across the state who were imprisoned because of parole violations. This number does not include people with prior convictions for violent offenses or people who could not provide evidence of adequate housing upon release. Michael Tyson, the first person to die from Covid-19 in the NYC jail system, was incarcerated on a technical parole violation, but had not been recommended for release under the Governor's guidelines because of a prior violent crime conviction. For up-to-date data on the number of Covid-19 cases in the New York State prison system, see here
  • By October 7, less than half of those incarcerated within the New York State prison system have been tested since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Advocates testified that the state is slowing down the number of tests per week, despite rising concerns over access to coronavirus testing and flu vaccinations.
  • By October 21, multiple New York state prisons began reporting new Covid-19 outbreaks within their facilities, with 278 incarcerated people at the Elmira Correctional Facility receiving positive test results within a two-week span (when reporting the outbreak, the facility was still awaiting the results of another 475 tests). On the same day, county officials announced that at the Greene Correctional Facility, 80 incarcerated people and 26 employees had tested positive - up from two positive cases as of Oct 1.
  • By October 27, almost 40 percent of incarcerated people at the Elmira state prison had tested positive for Covid-19, continuing an outbreak that prompted a full facility lockdown on October 21.
  • According to an Inspector General report released on November 10, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn has been waiting two months to schedule sick call requests for people held there, despite growing concerns of Covid-19 spread and ongoing unrelated health issues. The same report credited a lack of accessible testing as masking the true extent of Covid-19 outbreaks at the facility.
  • According to data released by the state, only five people were granted medical parole and let out between March 16 and November 10 by the New York State Parole Board, despite the multitude of incarcerated people with pre-existing medical conditions that make them more susceptible to Covid-19.

North Carolina

  • As of July 15, North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety began a 90 day contract with a Quality Inn & Suites in Durham, enabling them to quarantine people who have completed their sentences and are being released.
  • After six weeks and 3.3 million dollars of testing, North Carolina officials announced that 2.1 percent of the state’s incarcerated population tested positive for Covid-19.

North Dakota

  • On July 15, North Dakota began implementing antibody testing for all correctional staff, with plans to roll out to incarcerated people in the future. Each incarcerated person has been tested at least once, with ongoing testing planned as long as the pandemic continues. The department's total corrections population went from a daily average of 1,515 in March to 1,271 in June.
  • On November 11, North Dakota's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that it had resumed admissions to the State Penitentiary in Bismarck, which had been temporarily halted on October 19th in response to increased spread of Covid-19.

Ohio

  • On April 7, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced that his office recommended that 141 incarcerated people in minimum security prisons, who are within 90 days or less from release, be released by the end of the week. 
  • On April 22, a federal judge ordered officials at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution to identify their medically-vulnerable prisoners and transfer eligible incarcerated individuals out of the facility. The ruling came after a class action habeas petition filed on April 16 by the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, following an outbreak of Covid-19 inside the prison. As of April 22, 6 incarcerated individuals had died at Elkton from Covid-19. 
  • Between March 10th and May 13th, the Cuyahoga County, Ohio jail has released about 900 people, reducing its population by more than 30%. This reduction was largely a result of an increase in court orders and special hearings intended to expedite the release of people from local jails.
  • Gov. DeWine has refused ongoing requests to ramp up Covid-related releases. These requests were made because of the 6,000 positive tests as of July 20 (including both incarcerated people and correctional employees), and reports from prison employees that the current prison conditions are chaotic.
  • On November 16, the Cuyahoga County Jail stopped admitting those arrested on new misdemeanor charges, except in cases of domestic violence. The decision was intended to reduce the number of people incarcerated at the jail and limit the spread of Covid-19.

Oklahoma

  • On April 10, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the prison sentences of more than 450 incarcerated individuals to decrease prison overcrowding and reduce the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak in prisons. 
  • According to VICE News, the Grady County Jail in Oklahoma has earned a reputation as a "super-spreader" facility, as it has been identified as the source of outbreaks at federal institutions across the country. "In an internal Bureau of Prisons email sent in August...a senior regional official warns staff, 'Should you receive inmates who have been housed in Grady County (OK) Jail, it would be a good idea to assume they are positive for COVID-19.'"

Oregon

  • On April 8, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked for information from state and local corrections officials regarding the possible early release of incarcerated individuals to limit the spread of Covid-19 spread in Oregon prisons.
  • In Oregon, many incarcerated individuals are resisting Covid-19 testing because they may lose their limited privileges if they are transferred to DOC quarantine units. 
  • On June 15, the Oregon House and Senate released a “decompression” plan that requires the Department of Corrections to immediately release adults in custody who are at high risk for Covid-19, as well as individuals who are a few months away from the end of their sentence and have housing available.
  • Following a surge in Oregon’s correctional cases, more than a third of people incarcerated in the state were in quarantine as of July 20 – about 3,000 individuals total.
  • On August 25, Gov. Brown asked for the Oregon DOC to compile a list of people whose sentences could be commuted due to Covid-19 medical vulnerability. This is the second such list that the state has compiled, the first of which led to the commutation of 57 sentences in June.
  • By October, Covid-19 was consistently being transmitted inside prisons at ten times the rate of community spread outside correctional facilities, stoking widespread fear from those behind bars.

Pennsylvania

  • On April 10, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order that could lead to the release of between 1,500 and 1,800 "non-violent, at-risk" individuals incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons who are several months from their scheduled release. 
  • On April 10, Gov. Wolf ordered the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to establish a temporary reprieve program. The administration estimated that up to 1,800 people were eligible for release. As of May 8, fewer than 150 people have been released through the program. 
  • On May 20, Philadelphia began universal Covid-19 testing for the 3,800 people incarcerated in its four city jails, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms. 
  • As of June 2, Gov. Wolf had still not released the 1,800 individuals eligible for release under his April 10 reprieve order, inspiring hunger strikes across a coalition of organizations.
  • Pennsylvania DOC Secretary John Wetzel has continued drafting a plan to shift operational capacity for its state prisons, with the intention of releasing at least 2,000 currently incarcerated people at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 while they remain behind bars. In the first week of September, 33 new positive cases were confirmed in a single Pennsylvania county prison.
  • At the Laurel Highlands State Correctional Institution, which functions partially as a long-term-care facility for many of the oldest and sickest men in Pennsylvania’s prison system, 444 incarcerated people tested positive for the coronavirus in the month of November alone. By December 2, eight men had died of the virus in the past two weeks, and 49 staff members were also confirmed positive for Covid-19.

Rhode Island

  • The Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections is submitting weekly lists of people being held on low bail amounts to the public defender's and attorney general's offices for assessment in efforts to have them released. The state has also been evaluating people with less than 4 years on their sentences to see if they can retroactively apply "good time" credits for early release.

South Carolina 

  • As of September 29, South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC) has reported 31 deaths among incarcerated people, in addition to 2,140 positive cases. Incarcerated people remain in charge of cleaning the prison facilities, and the SCDOC has acknowledged the near-impossibility of social distancing behind bars, yet the state has not embraced a mass-release strategy to cope with virus concerns. 

South Dakota

  • In late July, South Dakota’s Pierre Community Work Center began reinstating some of its community service projects. By September, the 172 women incarcerated there had tested positive for Covid-19, and the work release programs were indefinitely paused again.
  • Between October 23-27, the South Dakota prison system reported 897 new positive cases among incarcerated persons and staff, and almost half of all incarcerated people in the state have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • On November 9, the first Covid-19 death of an incarcerated person in South Dakota was reported by the state Department of Corrections. The same day, the department reported that out of the 3,990 Covid-19 tests administered within its facilities, 1,870 incarcerated people have tested positive.

Tennessee

  • On August 31, state officials announced that nearly 1,000 of the 1,410 incarcerated people tested at the South Central Correctional Facility have been diagnosed with Covid-19, 

Texas

  • In Texas, at least 10,500 people have been approved for release by the parole board, but remain incarcerated while they wait to complete pre-release programs that have been suspended by COVID-19. Calls to release these potential parolees have been largely ignored by the governor.
  • As of July 23, tens of thousands of parole-approved people are still incarcerated in Texas. Many have been waiting six months or longer for release, and during that time, more people incarcerated in Texas have died from the virus than in any state prison system in America.
  • As of Friday, Aug. 14, there were 65 positive Covid-19 cases inside the federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, raising alarm among families and advocates of people incarcerated there.
  • On September 29, Federal District Judge Keith Ellison of the Southern District of Texas issued a permanent injunction in favor of the plaintiffs in Valentine v. Collier, a case challenging the lack of Covid-19 precautions being taken in a prison facility operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). At the time of his ruling, about 40% of the population was infected and 20 incarcerated people had died.
  • In November, the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project released a profile of Covid-19 deaths in carceral facilities in Texas. The report identifies that at least 204 people behind bars have died since the pandemic began, in addition to at least 27 staff members. It also found that in Texas' county jails, almost 80 percent of the people who died from Covid-19 between March and October had not been convicted of a crime.
  • Coronavirus-related deaths became so overwhelming in El Paso, Texas, that the Medical Examiner began forcing incarcerated people on work release to assist with transporting the overflowing number of bodies at the local morgue.

Utah

  • At Washington County jail in Utah, nearly 60 out of 300 incarcerated individuals tested positive for Covid-19 in the last week of June. Despite this recent spike, the Utah Supreme Court has stood by its decision to limit releases.
  • On October 6, the Utah State Prison reported an increase of 194 coronavirus cases in just two weeks. The outbreak was isolated within two cell blocks; after discovery of the infections prison staff were provided full PPE but incarcerated individuals were only given masks.

Vermont 

  • On September 4, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that coronavirus-related trial delays are not reason enough to release people detained pre-trial, denying the appeal of a man who has spent more than two years in jail awaiting trial on sex charges. All criminal trials in the state have been cancelled due to the pandemic, and there are no plans to resume trials before 2021.

Virginia

  • In late April, Virginia lawmakers granted the Virginia DOC the power to release people convicted of non-violent crimes early, so long as the individual had a year or less left before their original release date. 
  • At the beginning of September, the Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover, Virginia began experiencing a Covid-19 outbreak, with at least 120 inmates and 20 staff members testing positive despite emergency protocols officials say have been in place since March to prevent the contagion from infiltrating the facility. An official remarked that preventing outbreaks in carceral settings is "virtually impossible," because of the densely packed shared space that constitutes jails and prisons.
  • In response to an outbreak in November, officials at the Chesapeake Correctional Center allowed every incarcerated person to be tested for Covid-19. These tests, administered to 859 incarcerated people and 360 staff members on November 21, indicated 232 incarcerated people with the virus in addition to four deputies. With the facility's average daily population hovering around 985 people, the infection rate as of November 27 is roughly 23 percent.

Washington

  • On April 13, Gov. Jay Inslee's office announced that Washington state would commute the sentences of up to 950 incarcerated people who are part of vulnerable populations. This announcement came a few days after the Washington Supreme Court ordered the Governor and the Washington DOC to “immediately exercise their authority to take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety" of inmates in response to the COVID-19 outbreak." 
  • On April 23, a divided Washington Supreme denied a request to release thousands of inmates from the state’s prisons due to the coronavirus outbreak. The Court said that the incarcerated individuals who had sued failed to show that the Washington DOC was not properly addressing the risk of Covid-19. 
  • After their first positive case on June 15, Yakima County Jail in Washington has at least 73 confirmed cases as of July 2. All 408 of the people incarcerated there have been tested, with about 200 results still pending. The jail’s Chief has noted that it is difficult to contain a prison outbreak when there is concurrent community spread.

West Virginia

  • On May 2, correctional officers at USP Hazelton in West Virginia protested the Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, citing his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wisconsin

  • Between March 2 and May 4, the Wisconsin DOC released nearly 1,600 incarcerated individuals in response to Covid-19. The majority of those individuals were incarcerated because they had violated the terms of their parole or probation. 
  • Wisconsin has decreased the average daily population of its youth facilities to 76 as of July 10, which is roughly half of its pre-pandemic population.
  • On Tuesday, October 6, Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution reported 431 active cases of COVID-19, the largest outbreak at a Wisconsin prison yet. On the same day, the Oshkosh Correctional Institution — the most populous prison in the state — reported more than 300 active cases of Covid-19 within its facility. 
  • On October 31, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections released data for the first time on the number of incarcerated people who have died from Covid-19. At least five people have died from the virus while incarcerated there.

Wyoming

  • Starting the week of July 13, Wyoming began testing all incarcerated people for Covid-19. Wyoming is one of the only two states that has not yet confirmed a positive case among those who are incarcerated, but will still test everyone in their state prisons, which is just over 2,000 people.

U.S. Territories

  • After a Pentagon report to Congress on August 14, 11 senators publicly expressed concern over the federal government's plan to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 inside its prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Telephone and Video Calls

Brennan Center Recommendation: Correctional authorities should make telephone and video calls free for the duration of the crisis and, where necessary, work with private vendors to achieve this goal.

  • These jurisdictions have begun offering free video or phone calls, but they cap the number that can be made: Shelby County, Tenn.; Pennsylvania; Oklahoma (applicable to some facilities); and Utah (applicable to some facilities).
  • The Minnesota Department of Corrections, as of March 13, plans to use video systems for visitation at no cost to those behind bars.
  • After suspending in-person visitation due to Covid-19, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian is offering four free calls per week to individuals who are incarcerated as an interim step while they explore video visitation and electronic messaging.
  • The South Carolina Department of Corrections has given all incarcerated individuals access to a free call program, including for those who had lost phone privileges. 
  • The Nevada Department of Corrections is providing eligible incarcerated individuals up to two free phone calls per week as a way of mitigating the impact of suspended visits during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
  • Effective April 9, the Federal Bureau of Prisons made calling and video visitation free for people incarcerated in BOP facilities. 
  • Pennsylvania is piloting a new program that allows incarcerated people to have up to one 45-minute video call per week using Zoom, depending on scheduling availability.
  • Officials at Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan waived a ban on communication between volunteer teachers and incarcerated students so that Delta College professors could instruct their students over email. 
  • In response to visitation limitations due to Covid-19, Maine Correctional Facility officials reconfigured a prison classroom to hold classes over Zoom using the Internet from an administrator’s computer.
  • Three BOP facilities — in Lompoc and Terminal Island — have suspended incarcerated people's access to email and phone lines, drawing outrage from families who have not heard from loved ones. 
  • The Florida DOC extended its ban on visitors to prisons through June 28, which has been in place since March 11, promising two free phone calls per prisoner each week until July 5.
  • As of June, pre-release programming continued in the Montana DOC in groups fewer than 10, utilizing video conferencing when possible.
  • In June, BOP facilities restricted telecommunication access in response to ongoing protests, so some inmates have only been able to communicate through the postal system.
  • lawsuit has been brought by prisoners at Prince George’s County Detention Center in Maryland, who say that the officers, among other failures of hygiene and safety, banned them from making phone calls while quarantined.
  • A class action suit was filed in Maryland against three companies (Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link Corp, and 3Cinteractive Corp.) that facilitate collect calls made from US jails and prisons. They have allegedly colluded to inflate the cost of such calls for a decade. Although Securus has offered some free call credits to those incarcerated, this inflation has continued throughout the pandemic, with Securus and GTL pocketing much of the call costs.
  • Despite widespread limits to their communications, many people who are currently incarcerated have been sharing their daily experiences, as well as complaints about jail and prison conditions, on TikTok, a video streaming app. Although cellphones are generally contraband, some accounts have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, and provided crucial information about poor health conditions in prisons during the pandemic.
  • On July 23, the Michigan DOC announced that it will be launching video calls at seven of its 29 prisons, after the completion of necessary WiFi infrastructure updates that may take three or more months. Global Tel Link will provide the video calls for 16 cents a minute, which is the same rate for phone calls.
  • This July, incarcerated people and their families are advocating for provisions in the coming stimulus bill that cap the costs of prison phone calls. This would be in addition to the US House’s passage of the Martha Wright Phone Justice Act in May, which would give the FCC authority to regulate all prison and jail calls. The FCC does not yet have the power to set caps for about 80% of those calls.
  • California Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager is advocating for the expansion of cell phone availability in California state prisons. In a video for The Appeal on July 22, she explained that cellphones would streamline necessary legal communications, help maintain the mental health of incarcerated people, and reduce prohibitive phone call costs for their loved ones.
  • Senate democrats are pushing to include a provision in the next relief package that would provide access to free phone and video calls for people incarcerated in federal prisons, due to concerns about affordability for the families of those incarcerated.
  • During the first week of August, Arizona extended its suspension of in-person visitations through September 13. People with visitation privileges will still be eligible for two free 15-minute phone calls and a free 15-minute video visit each week.
  • A bill pending in the Massachusetts legislature this August seeks to make phone services provided to people in DOC facilities and county houses free of cost.
  • In early August, the FCC adopted a new rule to reduce rate caps for interstate prison calls and regulate the costs of ancillary fees for all calls, but intrastate calls remain out of the FCC's jurisdiction.
  • According to the Prison Policy Initiative, many jurisdictions have rolled back access to free communication services. Middlesex County, Massachusetts stopped offering free phone calls in September. Delaware ended its free calling offer in August; Vermont ended free video calls in June. “California, which in April offered three ‘free calling days’ per week, has reduced its offering to two days per month. Pennsylvania has reduced its offer from five free phone calls a week to just one.”

Hygiene and Access to Healthcare

Brennan Center Recommendation: Correctional authorities should further waive commissary fees for soap, toilet paper, and other hygienic essentials for the duration of the crisis.

  • According to the Prison Policy Initiative, only two states have not suspended medical co-pays for people in state prisons: Nevada and Hawaii. 
  • In Pennsylvania, the Department of Corrections increased production of antibacterial soap to ensure broad access throughout its institutions. The soap is being provided free of charge to imprisoned people. Medical co-pays have also been waived for imprisoned people presenting with an influenza-like illness.
  • Arizona’s Department of Corrections began waiving medical co-pays for imprisoned people with cold and flu symptoms, and it has made soap available for free.
  • As of March 20, the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced it would waive medical co-pays for imprisoned people indefinitely. Extra bars of soap will also be sent to each facility. “The agency is committed to ensuring that individual economic concerns do not limit an inmate’s willingness to seek medical care,” according to the release.
  • The ACLU-DC and the DC Public Defender’s Office brought a class-action lawsuit against the DC Department of Corrections (which includes the D.C. Jail and the Correctional Treatment Facility). The lawsuit alleges that the DOC has not adequately screened or tested inmates for Covid-19, and that it has not done enough to prevent the virus from spreading. The DC corrections workers union backed the lawsuit, saying that officials were “guaranteeing and accelerating the rampant spread of Covid-19” by providing no masks, gowns, disinfectants or comprehensive screening and that “the Jail is the lowest priority among the health and safety community.” A federal judge heard the lawsuit on Tuesday, April 7. On April 13, Deon Crowell became the first person incarcerated in the DC Jail to die from Covid-19. He was 51. 
  • On April 16, a federal judge in Houston ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide people incarcerated at one Texas prison with hand sanitizer, masks and unrestricted access to soap. The order came after the death of an incarcerated individual who'd tested positive for Covid-19. On April 17, TDCJ appealed the ruling in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and asked Judge Ellison to pause his order pending the appeal. The judge granted a five-day stay — putting the ruling into effect on April 22 — while he "writes up a more detailed memorandum on the factual and legal basis for his order." On September 29, he issued a permanent injunction for the plaintiffs.
  • Alabama prison officials are requiring incarcerated individuals to sign a consent form before giving them masks that could help fight Covid-19. Advocates and medical experts have criticized the decision, arguing that PPE should be given "with no strings attached."
  • On April 24, a coalition of activists in Los Angeles called Covid-19 Rapid Response, as well as a number of incarcerated individuals, sued Los Angeles County and the L.A. County sheriff, citing a failure to safeguard the health of incarcerated individuals. They are demanding that the L.A. County sheriff implement constitutionally mandated procedures to protect incarcerated people from contracting Covid-19 and to comply with guidelines issued by the CDC and the CA Department of Public Health. 
  • On May 1, Gov. Murphy announced that the New Jersey DOC would begin universal COVID-19 testing for incarcerated people and corrections staff. 
  • On May 3, incarcerated individuals on death row at a Texas prison asked to join a lawsuit, filed by the Texas Innocence Network, against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, claiming health and safety concerns put them at risk of contracting Covid-19.
  • In early May, the Arkansas DOC housed Covid-negative prisoners in holding cells without access to toilets or showers, which resulted in inmates urinating and defecating on cell floors, and washing themselves with hoses.
  • On May 14, the Supreme Court denied a request from two incarcerated people in a Texas geriatric prison to reinstate a trial judge’s order instructing TDCJ officials to take steps to protect them from Covid-19. Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a seven-page statement expressing concern about conditions in prison and jails around the country, and about the risks facing incarcerated individuals who are exposed to Covid-19.
  • Incarcerated individuals at the California Institution for Men in Chino — home of the deadliest Covid-19 outbreak in the state’s prisons — were not tested for the virus for weeks before nearly 200 were transferred by bus to other facilities on June 8, including one in the Bay Area.
  • Despite mass releases granted by Gov. Newsom, incarcerated individuals in California noted that they have not had access to food, water, or basic medical care while quarantined, and have been disciplined for wearing face coverings and trying to sanitize their surroundings.
  • In Connecticut, prison healthcare workers began striking as on June 15, protesting the understaffing that they say is due to poor benefits and incentives. Staff is being augmented by work agency nurses, who according to corrections staff have not been sufficiently trained in prison safety and security.
  • The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry issued a department-wide directive on June 19, requiring correctional officers to wear face masks.
  • After Covid-19 cases tripled at San Quentin, organizers began calling on officials to expand job assignments so that incarcerated individuals can afford to buy hygiene products from the prison commissary.
  • After Covid-19 cases jumped in Missouri state prisons, women incarcerated at the Chillicothe Correctional Center have expressed concerns that the lax mask policies for guards may be helping spread the virus. It has been reported that most of the guards do not wear masks, and there are no Department of Corrections rules requiring that they do wear them outside of quarantine areas. (July 15)
  • In a letter to the state health department on July 20, a top health official in California revealed that state contractors for the CDCR have allowed infected nurses to transmit Covid-19 by not using PPE and improperly monitoring themselves for signs of infection. There is also evidence that nurses improperly swabbed incarcerated people being tested, and did not change their gloves between tests. 
  • Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed Arkansas’ spike in Covid-19 cases on July 29, attributing the high per capita infection rate in the Arkansas prison system to the state’s practice of mass testing. People incarcerated in Arkansas are infected at a rate 1,715% higher than the rest of the state.
  • A suit filed against the Baltimore County Detention Center in July alleges that people incarcerated there were denied Covid-19 testing, and that some were forced to remain in their cells after raw sewage leaked and overflowed into their cellblock. The suit also alleges that the detention center has not been providing proper food or exercise opportunities to people incarcerated there during the pandemic.
  • Families of people incarcerated in Georgia’s state prisons alleged in August that prison conditions continue to be deplorable, as there is apparently little access to nutritious food, running water, or proper hygiene. These allegations come days after an alleged riot protesting these conditions took place at Ware State Prison in Georgia.
  • The Correctional Medical Authority that oversees care in Florida’s prison system has stopped all in-person visits because of the pandemic.
  • On September 3, activists and family members began protesting outside the Eddie Warrior women's facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma in response to the Covid-19 outbreak there. The group is calling for more support for the 700 women there who have tested positive, as well as expanded access to medical care for those who are not yet infected--but whose exposure feels imminent due to the current standards of care inside the facility.

Community Supervision

Brennan Center Recommendation: Jurisdictions should implement alternative methods — such as video or telephone — for people released on some form of community supervision to stay in touch with their supervising officer and waive the need for in-person meetings except in extraordinary cases.

  • A statement signed by dozens of “probation and parole executives and associations” called for supervision departments to forego reporting altogether for those who pose a lower risk or to have people report via telephone, online, or via postcard. They also recommended suspending or severely limiting the use of technical violations for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
  • The Arkansas Department of Corrections suspended face-to-face office meetings for 21 days, with few individuals still required to check-in by phone. It also waived user fees for the month of April, citing increasing unemployment.
  • The Rhode Island Department of Corrections announced that probation and parole offices will not hold in-person check-ins.

Additional Resources

  • For more on how Covid-19 is impacting incarcerated people, correctional officers and other personnel, see this resource from UCLA Law.
  • For state-specific information on clemency and the reprieve power, see this resource from NYU Law's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law. 
  • For more on Covid-19 infection rates in juvenile facilities, see this resource from the Sentencing Project.