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.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the country, and particularly its incarcerated populations, government actors have turned their attention to vaccine distribution as the solution to this health crisis. Though some states have explicitly included incarcerated individuals in their vaccination plans, many have not yet provided information as to how and when those behind bars will be granted access to this protection.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- According to the Council on Criminal Justice's December report on Covid-19 in U.S. prisons, "approximately 12 of every 100 individuals in state and federal prisons had recovered from or were experiencing a COVID-19 infection as of Nov. 13, 2020." This number far outpaces the corresponding rate of roughly three in 100 U.S. residents.
- By December 21, at least 14 of the roughly 50 men held on federal death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana had tested positive for Covid-19 at the same time. These men include two of the three people scheduled to be executed before Donald Trump leaves office, Corey Johnson and Dustin John Higgs. Their lawyers have raised the highly contagious virus as reason for delaying their executions, which could mean their lives are spared if the dates are delayed until after Joe Biden takes office.
- The Council on Criminal Justice's National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice released a report in December that identifies weaknesses in the nationwide response to Covid-19 in carceral and community correction settings and provides concrete recommendations for building a fairer and more resilient criminal legal system during the recovery period of this pandemic.
- In an examination of mass incarceration's impact on community spread of the coronavirus, the Prison Policy Initiative documented that across the country, mass incarceration added more than a half million coronavirus cases in just three months and grew Covid-19 caseloads much more quickly among counties in multicounty economic areas with more people incarcerated.
- On January 5, Senator Elizabeth Warren joined the cofounders of the COVID Prison Project in an op-ed calling for more transparency and data collection on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic within the country's prisons and jails: "We know it's bad, but because comprehensive data isn't being collected, we don't know exactly how bad it is."
- Under the new Biden administration’s Covid-19 strategy, jails, prisons, and detention centers are priority areas for vaccination. In the National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness plan, the federal government acknowledges that “incarcerated individuals and facility staff are at high risk of infection and in many cases severe illness and death,” and promises to coordinate a vaccination program through the BOP while also “working with states and localities to encourage the vaccination of incarcerated individuals along with facility staff as supply is available."
- On January 15, the BOP announced plans to force some people released to home confinement during the pandemic back into carceral facilities. Those people sent home during the pandemic did not receive any "date of return" paperwork, leading most to believe that they were "home for good with their sentence ending when their ankle bracelet was removed."
- As the federal government raced to execute incarcerated individuals before the Biden administration was sworn in, the BOP knowingly withheld positive coronavirus diagnoses from media witnesses and declined to conduct any contract tracing after exposures at the executions. Multiple journalists were exposed while acting as media witnesses and many have since tested positive. On January 27, the BOP confirmed that they had known about positive test results for days, but decided not to take any action.
State/Local Responses and Vaccinations
- 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.
- On January 21, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy announced his jurisdiction's plans to start vaccinating people held at the local jail as soon as more doses become available, providing hundreds of incarcerated individuals with some protection from Covid-19.
- 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.
- On December 27, the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center reported over 100 new active cases of Covid-19, an infection rate of over 25% of the women housed at the facility. The prison entered lockdown over the Christmas holiday in an attempt to limit the spread of this developing outbreak.
- 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.
- On December 8, the Arizona DOC reported that 655 people inside a single unit at its Yuma prison facility has tested positive for Covid-19. In the same week, over 600 women incarcerated at the Perryville prison did not have running water, nor did two units of men incarcerated at a prison in Goodyear. Advocates for incarcerated people in both prisons have filed lawsuits arguing that the unsanitary conditions at Arizona facilities are further endangering those locked inside, exposing them to more risk of contracting Covid-19.
- In December, the state announced that it will begin a second round of Covid-19 testing for all incarcerated individuals in 2021, as well as launching rapid testing for prison employees. The revived testing protocol follows at least 6,411 cases and 26 Covid-related deaths within Arizona's prison system in 2020.
- On February 14, corrections officials in Arizona reported that the state's prison population had declined by 11% throughout the pandemic. These numbers come as a result of fewer sentences and probation revocations. There has also been a reluctance for people charged with crimes to take plea deals because of a fear of the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, but many counties around the state have paused or limited jury trials during the pandemic.
- 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.
- On December 12, officials at four prisons in Arkansas began reopening in-person family visitation. The visits in this pilot program are limited to two adults from an immediate family group, allowed to meet for up to one hour in rooms divided by plastic-glass barriers.
- On January 6, Arkansas began vaccinating prison officials and staff, prioritizing those who have not yet contracted Covid-19 before opening the vaccination to all facility staff. The state has not begun to vaccinate incarcerated individuals, and state health department officials have announced no timeline for doing so.
- 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.
- On December 2, the Department of Corrections disclosed that nearly 1,000 people held at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison have active infections of Covid-19; nearly all of the cases were reported within two weeks of the announcement.
- Within Los Angeles County's juvenile detention system, more that 58 percent of children were quarantined during the week of December 7 due to Covid-19 exposure. The department provides daily updates on the status of Covid-19 within its facilities, and the numbers of quarantined people have continued to rise as more and more children present virus symptoms.
- On December 12, a Superior Court judge in Orange County ordered that the county's jail cut its population in half, finding that "the sheriff had shown 'deliberate indifference' to the serious harm that the virus can pose to medically vulnerable people in custody, violating their state constitutional rights."
- According to research released on January 28, California's prisons and jails have been undercounting deaths related to Covid-19. Despite the surges in official numbers, true cases and death counts in the state's carceral facilities are likely much higher, due to reporting mistake, delays in tracking, and differences in data collection across facilities.
- A report released by the state inspector general on February 1 blamed the "hastily executed transfer" of nearly 200 people from the California Institute for Man in May 2020 for spreading Covid-19 to the San Quentin state prison, where hundreds of incarcerated people began testing positive for the coronavirus and dozens of people died.
- On February 5, Cal/OSHA fined San Quentin $421,880 for its Covid-19 outbreak. Cal/OSHA cites a lack of training and equipment for staff coming into contact with people who had contracted Covid-19 in the institution and that staff at San Quentin who were exposed to a Covid-positive patient did not have access to necessary services like contact tracing, testing, and medical referrals. The outbreak, which caused 2,240 Covid-19 cases and 28 deaths among people incarcerated at San Quentin, occurred because of improper execution of testing and coronavirus-related preparation procedures before transferring 122 people from the California Institute for Men to San Quentin.
- On February 11, a report from the Sacramento County Sheriff stated that a major Covid-19 outbreak had occurred in Sacramento County's Elk Grove jail after 55 people were transferred from the county's downtown jail.
- After less than a year of the Covid-19 pandemic, 94 percent of the men incarcerated at Avenal state prison have contracted Covid-19, and at least eight have died. The facility represents the largest cluster of coronavirus cases in U.S. prisons, and advocates for people incarcerated there maintain that California's prison officials have not learned from or implemented appropriate policy changes due to the disaster.
- 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.
- As part of a settlement with the ACLU of Colorado, the Weld County Sheriff’s Department agreed in December to avoid taking some people accused of low-level offenses into custody. The settlement also promises that the sheriff's office will do more to protect those held at the county jail, particularly people over 65 or with pre-existing medical conditions.
- On December 9, the federal prison in Jefferson County, Colorado reported the largest outbreak in the federal prison system, with over half of the people incarcerated there experiencing Covid-19 infections at the same time (451 active cases), in addition to 50 staff members.
- On December 14, incarcerated people at the El Paso County jail filed a class action lawsuit, alleging that jail staff and the sheriff put their lives at risk by not providing masks and failing to protect people from the spread of Covid-19. Before early November, when the jail finally provided some masks, people tried to fashion face coverings from underwear and bedsheets but were punished for doing so, according to the lawsuit.
- On December 28, the Colorado DOC reported that four incarcerated people died from Covid-19 over the Christmas holiday weekend. Despite a decline in positive tests across the state, people inside prisons and jails continue to face elevated risk of contracting the disease and limited access to healthcare if they do.
- As incarcerated individuals continue to die from coronavirus-related causes, the Colorado DOC continues to decline to say whether those people ever tested positive for the disease, while also withholding their names, leaving peers in the dark about their exposure risks. As of January 4, at least 700 incarcerated people had active infections according to the state database.
- 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.
- On Monday, February 1, Connecticut correctional staff and some elderly incarcerated people began receiving Covid-19 vaccinations. Both staff and incarcerated people are among the prioritized groups of Phase 1B, but the state is choosing to delay making inoculations available to incarcerated people under age 75.
- 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.
- 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.
- In the midst of two large, ongoing Covid-19 outbreaks at different prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections eliminated much of its public data about coronavirus in its prison system, removing prison-by-prison data and testing information from the site, and now only updating the dashboard weekly. The changes make it impossible to determine positivity rates across the state's network of prisons, and further obfuscates access to information about the status of Covid-19 within a specific facility. The dashboard also now only provides the number of positive staff cases for all facilities, which used to be broken down by facility.
- On January 26, the Palm Beach sheriff announced that more than 100 people had tested positive at County jails in the past two weeks, resulting in more than a third of the nearly 1300 people held at the main jail being placed in quarantine awaiting further test results.
- During the same week, staff at Florida prisons began asking incarcerated people if they would volunteer to be vaccinated, but did not provide information about the process or the vaccine itself. Across the state, incarcerated people were "given the choice to fill out a vaccine refusal form or add their name to a vaccine sign-up list," without other details being announced.
- 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”.
- 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.
- On December 16, a union representing hundreds of Hawaii prison employees protested that the state is failing to protect incarcerated people and staff from an outbreak of Covid-19. The union also reported that employees at the Halawa facility have been working up to 36-hour shifts under hazardous conditions, increasing health concerns.
- 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.
- 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.
- Illinois' updated Covid-19 vaccination plan, released on January 19, will prioritize incarcerated people along with all other residents of congregate settings, placing them above people under the age of 65 with high-risk medical conditions.
- On February 12, Illinois representatives reported that the state will begin vaccinating incarcerated the following week. The decision came after the state revised its vaccine distribution guidelines in late December.
- 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.
- On January 8, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that the state's vaccine prioritization plan would not include incarcerated individuals, while prison staff have already begun receiving the vaccine.
- 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.
- Following the twelfth death of an incarcerated person during the state prison system's coronavirus outbreak, on December 11, the Iowa Department of Corrections reported 313 active infections of Covid-19 among incarcerated people. In addition to the people left to die behind bars, two staff members of the Iowa prison system have died from Covid-19.
- Despite vaccinations becoming available to prison staff and educational campaigns run by the state, almost half of Iowa's correctional employees had refused to take the Covid-19 vaccine by January 8, with only 52 percent of workers agreeing to receive the vaccine.
- On February 3, data from 2020 showed that the rate at which parole petitions were granted in Iowa dropped by 4% compared to 2019. However, the number of parole hearings rose by 8% and the total number of incarcerated people approved for parole also increased by 4%. The new data comes from a report released by the Prison Policy Initiative.
- 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."
- At the Topeka Correctional Facility, a cohort of newly incarcerated people is being held at an "intake isolation unit" inside an unused portion of the prison. The quarantine period, during which no one may leave the unit grounds, is reportedly 21 days. However, family members of incarcerated people have protested that the entire cohort must test negative before anyone is transferred to the prison's general population. Anytime someone is infected, the 21-day clock resets on the entire group, leaving people in a "moldy" tent with "one bathroom for the 38 women and cold temperatures each morning, while the mandate to be socially distant is all but impossible."
- In an interview on December 23, Gov. Laura Kelly repeatedly indicated her support for vaccinating Kansas' incarcerated population before the general public, explaining: "We do know that congregate living centers are hotspots, whether you talk about prisons, you talk about nursing homes...the only way ultimately to rid those kinds of facilities of the virus is for the vaccination to come. It makes all sorts of sense for us to include all congregate settings in the first line of vaccines."
- As of February 14, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly had not granted clemency to anyone incarcerated in the state's prison system. The state government has received more than 100 request for clemency (double the number of requests in previous years), many of which are related to concerns about Covid-19.
- 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.
- In an outbreak that began in mid-December, the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex reported on January 13 that 728 people were actively infected (about 50 percent of the facility's incarcerated population). In addition, 80 staff members were actively infected, with the outbreak showing no signs of slowing down.
- 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.
- According to a report released on December 15, correctional officials at all levels of the Louisiana prison, jail, and immigration detention systems failed to do enough to protect people from the spread of Covid-19, leading to "unnecessary death and suffering" during the pandemic.
- By the end of January, Louisiana had offered the first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine to all people over the age of 70 who are incarcerated in a a state-run facility. About 82 percent volunteered to receive the shot, which was made available to incarcerated people roughly a week after the general public (those above the age of 70) was allowed access.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- After two incarcerated people died from coronavirus-related illnesses right after being granted medical parole, the Department of Corrections decided to include the number of Covid-positive people released on medical parole to the Special Master of the state Supreme Judicial Court. The change in the reporting process follows an investigation by WBUR that uncovered that the state had denied medical parole for the two individuals until they were hospitalized and likely to die from Coivd-19.
- A Superior Court Judge in Suffolk County reported on December 8 that he will review an emergency motion to allow the home release of some Massachusetts prisoners due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts presented the motion alleging that the state must do more to protect incarcerated individuals from Covid-19 outbreaks within carceral facilities.
- Gov. Charlie Baker announced that corrections staff and incarcerated people are among the first people who will be vaccinated under Massachusetts' vaccine distribution plan, placing both groups in the Phase 1 category. This phase of vaccination also includes health care workers, police, fire and emergency responders, people residing in long term care facilities, and those living and working in homeless shelters.
- Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian surveyed incarcerated people in his jurisdiction about their willingness to be vaccinated against Covid-19. By January 12, only 40 percent of the 406 respondents said they would "take an approved Covid-19 vaccine right now" if it were offered to them, free of charge.
- Vaccinations in Massachusetts prisons began on January 20, as Gov. Charlie Baker announced that all willing volunteers of the “about 6,500 inmates and 4,500 staff” at DOC facilities would be inoculated by the second week of February. Staff members began receiving vaccinations on January 7, but incarcerated individuals were not offered vaccine doses until two weeks later.
- On January 28, Massachusetts Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Carol Mici, announced that Massachusetts has been offering the COVID-19 vaccine to incarcerated people as part of the first phase of their vaccine distribution plan, and so far over 3,500 people in the state's DOC have received it. Additionally, incarcerated people in Massachusetts will receive 7.5 days of Earned Good Time after receiving both doses of the vaccine and completing educational materials on it.
- On February 3, Massachusetts rescinded its promise to offer "good time" credits to incarcerated individuals who took both doses of the vaccine and read/watched educational materials about it. The decision came from Gov. Charlie Baker, who deemed the credits "not consistent with the Administration's policies regarding reduced prison terms."
- On February 8, the state of Massachusetts reported that over half of the state's DOC staff have refused the Covid-19 vaccine. Officials worry that Covid-19 will continue to plague prisons, as the virus is brought into the institutions through staff.
- 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.
- By December 2, 40 percent of people incarcerated in Michigan prisons had tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. The state has continued to provide little protection for incarcerated people and prison staff, whose exposure risks continue to climb during the winter months.
- Michigan's state health department began reviewing cases of possible Covid-19 reinfection on December 12, after more than 100 people tested positive for a second time while incarcerated.
- On December 30, Michigan began vaccinating health care staff at its prisons and jails against Covid-19, prioritizing those who provide direct care to elderly people in long-term care settings. The entirety of prison employees will be eligible in the second phase of vaccination, which includes all essential workers in the state. However, incarcerated people will not themselves be eligible for vaccination in Michigan until the statewide, general population rollout at some point in 2021.
- On January 12, the state prison in Saginaw entered "outbreak status" when 774 individuals (more than half the facility's population) tested positive for Covid-19 at the same time. Additionally, the facility reported more than 300 additional people in the "step-down" phase, meaning they had been medically cleared as no longer contagious but still carried the virus.
- On February 10, the Michigan DOC issued a notice to staff and people incarcerated in the state that a staff member at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia had tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant of Covid-19. This variant is more contagious than previous strains of the virus.
- On February 26, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office announced that it would be the first correctional facility in the U.S. to install air purifiers that are intended to "kill COVID-19 particles," utilizing filters that recently gained an emergency use authorization from the FDA. In general, Michigan jails have continued to deny access to testing, appropriate distancing measures, or PPE to the people held there.
- 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.
- In December, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a suit against the federal women's prison in Waseca, alleging that the prison failed to take measures that would prevent an outbreak of Covid-19, such as releasing people with medical conditions to home confinement and reducing the prison's population to allow social distancing. At the time of filing, about 70 percent of the prison's incarcerated population had tested positive for the coronavirus since March.
- 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.
- As of November 30, the Mississippi Department of Corrections reported 902 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among the incarcerated population and only 1,380 incarcerated individuals who have tested negative. Family members and advocates continue to report a lack of social distancing procedures or other protectionary measures, despite facility lockdowns purportedly intended to insulate the incarcerated population from virus spread.
- 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.”
- 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.
- On February 9, the Montana Department of Corrections vaccinated 110 individuals incarcerated in the state's prison system as part of Phase 1B of Montana's vaccine distribution plan. Those who received the vaccine included people at risk for complications from Covid-19, such as incarcerated people over 70. Incarcerated people who have not been deemed "high risk" will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Phase 1C.
- 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.
- 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”.
- In December, numerous corrections officials reported to the state Sentencing Commission that they would "rather quit than be forced to take" the coronavirus vaccine. At the same time, department officials reported that they are drafting legislation to force incarcerated individuals to be vaccinated.
- 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.
- 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.
- Only three weeks after its last major outbreak, Fort Dix reported on January 5 that roughly 600 incarcerated individuals at the facility have tested positive for Covid-19, again raising concerns about those trapped within the prison walls who have had to endure multiple lockdowns and extensive virus spread.
- The Fort Dix federal prison began receiving coronavirus vaccines for distribution to incarcerated individuals on January 19, at a time when at least 460 people were actively experiencing Covid-19 infections.
- On February 1, the warden of Fort Dix federal prison was reassigned to an administrative post in Philadelphia, signaling the BOP's acknowledgement of his failure to contain (or curtail in any way) the massive coronavirus outbreak within the facility. According to official BOP case data, roughly 1,500 incarcerated people in Fort Dix have tested positive for Covid-19.
- On February 11, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected a case proposing to release approximately 650 people from jail after six months of awaiting trial. However, the Court conceded that lower courts should still consider releasing some people from jail after six months, especially if their health puts them at a greater risk for complications related to Covid-19.
- Despite the state technically allowing incarcerated individuals to receive Covid-19 vaccinations, county jails in New Jersey have reported difficulty accessing the state's vaccine supply, leaving them unable to move forward with their full inoculation plans or meet demand inside the jails.
- 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.
- 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.
- On December 8, the Monroe County jail began universal coronavirus testing, after nearly 200 people at the jail were placed in quarantine for possible Covid-19 exposure. Almost immediately, over 70 people tested positive for Covid-19.
- On December 16, the Onondaga County jail announced that 22 incarcerated individuals, four staff members, and one food vendor all tested positive for the coronavirus in two days, prompting the facility to restrict all activity and bring meals to people in their cells.
- Between December 12 and January 5, the state's 52 correctional facilities reported at least nine deaths and over 1,000 active infections among incarcerated individuals, exemplifying New York's inability to keep incarcerated people safe from infection.
- On January 6, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that some New York City jail staff are now eligible to be vaccinated, in addition to the medical employees who were already eligible. However, only the highest-risk patients inside the jail will be vaccinated in this phase.
- In the first weeks of 2021, positive cases in the New York state prison system skyrocketed, with almost 2,000 people testing positive from December 1 through January 12. The state did not announce any plans to vaccinate incarcerated individuals in response to this surge.
- On January 28, the New York State attorney's office released a report indicating that the state's health department may have undercounted the Covid-19 death toll in state nursing home residents by as much as 50%. The investigation is ongoing.
- On January 28, authorities began administering Covid-19 vaccinations to jail staff and some incarcerated people in New York City's federal jails. The staff were given first access to the vaccines, though some have declined protection. In city-run jails, roughly 200 incarcerated people had been vaccinated by the end of January, prioritizing the most elderly and vulnerable. Those held in state prisons, however, are not yet eligible for vaccinations.
- While the state resists calls to offer vaccinations to incarcerated people, Covid-19 cases in the New York state prison system continued to spiral out of control, with nearly 150 actives cases being reported at the Franklin Correctional facility on February 3 alone.
- In response to these state failures, two men being held on Rikers Island filed a lawsuit on February 4, arguing that the state’s rules "allowing immunizations for residents of other congregate settings— nursing homes, shelters and long-term care facilities—while excluding incarcerated people is 'arbitrary and capricious'."
- On February 5, Gov. Cuomo announced that people held in New York City jails who are over the age of 65 or “medically frail” can begin receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. This announcement came as a result of the above lawsuit filed on behalf of incarcerated people at Rikers, who claimed that exclusion from vaccination is a violation of their rights under the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause.
- On February 18, advocacy groups and state lawmakers called on the New York DOC to reform Covid-related responses. The advocates were particularly concerned about prisons sending Covid-positive people who needed to quarantine to solitary confinement in the Specialty Housing Units.
- 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.
- Between December 3 and December 7, four incarcerated men in North Carolina died of the coronavirus. They bring the death toll of individuals incarcerated by the state of North Carolina to 28, a number that has doubled since the end of September. According to the state's public database, 6,059 people in the state prison system have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, representing one in six people held in state prison facilities.
- The first 1,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines for incarcerated people and prison staff in North Carolina arrived on January 20th. The initial doses will be offered to staff and “housing units where offenders have tested positive for the virus and inmates 75 years or older,” before moving onto incarcerated people between 65 and 74 years of age. The state has considered incentivizing vaccination among incarcerated individuals, and may offer rewards for volunteering once vaccinations are available to the general prison population.
- In an inspection report released January 28, the BOP found that Butner Correctional Complex mishandled its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with improper mask usage, risky and unnecessary movement of incarcerated people, and a botched implementation of the attorney general's directive to release at-risk individuals.
- On February 9, a North Carolina Health News investigation in partnership with VICE News reported that North Carolina has been under reporting the number of incarcerated people who have died of Covid-19. The state failed to report all Covid-related deaths that occurred in prisons during the first seven months of the pandemic.
- On February 24, North Carolina settled a lawsuit with the NAACP, filed on behalf of incarcerated people in the state, ensuring that its prison system will release at least 3,500 people over the next six months. The lawsuit was filed 11 months ago in response to the abysmal conditions faced by incarcerated people during the pandemic, and represents the largest decarceration effort to come from the court system since the onslaught of Covid-19.
- 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.
- 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.
- On December 11, 17 percent of people held at the Cuyahoga County jail had tested positive for Covid-19 (237 cases), almost fifty of them in a single day. In response to the growing outbreak, the Ohio National Guard began staffing the jail, in addition to the 12 other Ohio carceral facilities where the Guard was already supplanting depleted staff.
- On December 14, the Cuyahoga County jail announced that they would release some people convicted of misdemeanors, in order to reduce the number of people held at the jail. Some of those released with be immediately transferred to another facility, and those convicted of domestic violence charges are not eligible for release under this measure.
- The next day, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that his administration has not yet decided when incarcerated people and staff will be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, even as cases among prison employees in Ohio have risen more than 80 percent in the last month, and over 500 incarcerated people tested positive in the first two weeks of December.
- On December 23, Gove. Mike DeWine announced that the state does not have a plan for vaccinating all incarcerated people or prison staff members yet, though facility employees will be prioritized above the majority of incarcerated people. The state distributed vaccines to some extremely vulnerable folks in prison medical care units at the end of December, but the majority of the state's prisons remain uncertain as to when they will receive enhanced protection from Covid-19 outbreaks.
- 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.'"
- A report released on January 7 revealed that commutation approvals in Oklahoma plummeted during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the parole board approving 33 percent fewer Stage 1 commutation in 2020 as compared to 2019, despite considering over 1,000 more applications.
- On January 23, the Oklahoma DOC announced that it will begin vaccinating prison employees and incarcerated people in February, beginning with professional medical personnel (followed by staff, then incarcerate people). The plan does not fully prioritize incarcerated people, but provides more of a structure for vaccinating them than many other states.
- 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.
- A December grand jury report found that population reduction at the Multnomah County Jail, which dropped from operating at 95 percent capacity in the early spring to 66 percent capacity by winter, led to a positive impact on facility operation, particularly in mitigating the spread of Covid-19 within its walls. The report "encouraged the sheriff’s office to look for alternative ways to address the mental health needs of those who have remained in custody, and to resume offering free phone calls in places without in-person visitation."
- On December 2, Gov. Kate Brown announced another expansion of the criteria for early release form prison in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The announcement signals the third time since March that the governor has ordered the Department of Corrections to review people for potential release, this time including those within six months of release from prison.
- On December 16, A federal judge ruled that state officials in Oregon are not protected from liability claims if they did not implement appropriate safety measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, allowing a suit from seven currently and formerly incarcerated people to proceed in the court system. The lawsuit alleges that the state violated their Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment by negligently refusing to carry out protection measures.
- On December 28, DOC officials in Oregon announced that nurses, doctors and corrections officers who are in close contact with incarcerated individuals who have contracted Covid-19 are the highest priority for the vaccines. They also included a small number of incarcerated people responsible for cleaning housing units in this priority group, but only 400 total doses of the vaccine were made available to the agency by the end of 2020.
- On Tuesday, February 2, a judge ordered that all people incarcerated by the Oregon prison system must be prioritized for vaccination from Covid-19. The preliminary injunction makes all incarcerated people in the state immediately eligible for the vaccine, along with all other people living in congregate settings (such as nursing homes). The next day, Gov. Kate Brown decided not to appeal the decision and instead move ahead with the vaccinations.
- On February 10, Oregon state officials estimated that 55% of prison staff will choose to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, despite all but one of the Covid-19 outbreaks in Oregon's prisons being traceable to staff's contact with people outside prisons.
- 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.
- At the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, incarcerated people have been granted compassionate release but not actually been released. On December 9, at least one of those people tested positive for Covid-19, adding to the facility's rapidly spreading outbreak. According to the BOP, 538 incarcerated people and 22 staff members were experiencing active infections.
- Within a single week in December, 228 people held in Philadelphia jails tested positive for Covid-19. Staff and incarcerated people alike continue to allege that even more cases are going undetected, due to inadequate testing and a lack of contact tracing.
- On January 14, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ordered Philadelphia jails to relax some of their most extreme Covid-19 lockdown measures in order to protect the mental health of incarcerated individuals there.
- By February 2,over 13,000 people in the Pennsylvania prison system had tested positive for Covid-19, with at least 100 deaths directly caused by the coronavirus.
- On February 9, spokespersons for Lehigh and Northampton Counties in Pennsylvania reported that Covid-19 cases were down significantly from previous months in jails in both counties. There are currently two active cases among people being held in the Lehigh County jail and zero cases in the Northampton jail.
- 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.
- On November 30, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections announced that 488 incarcerated people and 112 staff members have tested positive for Covid-19. In November alone, the state's maximum-security unit confirmed coronavirus cases among 316 of the 354 people held there.
- During the last week of December, Rhode Island began vaccinating incarcerated people in the state. The vaccinations are in accordance with Phase One of its distribution plan, which prioritizes "older adults in congregate or crowded settings".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- As of February 9, experts in correctional health worried that Covid-19 had worsened pre-existing weaknesses in Tennessee prisons' medical systems. The medical care in the state's prisons, which was already limited, now has even slower response times for routine and specialty care because of Covid. Addiction treatment programs in the state's prison system have also been reduced by the pandemic, and the number of overdoses in these institutions has increased during the pandemic.
- 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.
- On December 13, investigative journalists released data showing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's lackluster response to the pandemic has increased the spread of Covid-19 behind bars, potentially exacerbating outbreaks in carceral setting and further endangering surrounding communities.
- A federal judge ordered the Harris County Jail to "swiftly review" roughly 2,000 people for bail reductions, pretrial release, or post-conviction release by the end of January, hoping to prevent the rapidly overflowing jail from becoming more of a "killing field".
- On January 20, it was revealed that the El Paso County Sheriff's Office spent more than $80,000 on face masks from April through September, but did not provide any of the masks to incarcerated people.
- By January 2021, multiple county jails in Texas are out of space to hold people, due to the pandemic's stalling of the criminal legal system coupled with the state's reluctance to release those held in police or DOC custody. The lack of space in many county jails has made the already difficult tasks of social distancing and quarantining new arrivals completely impossible, and incarcerated individuals continue to die at alarming rates.
- By February 2, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had administered more than 5,500 does of the Covid-19 vaccine, but not a single shot went to incarcerated people--even those who qualify for vaccinations under the state's current implementation phase.
- Also on February 2, Nueces County, Texas Judge Barbara Canales announced that the county will delay the return of in-person jury trials, which were supposed to begin February 10. Nueces County currently has 18 people in jail waiting to be tried for capital murder.
- As of February 16, approximately 1,000 women incarcerated at FMC Carswell medical prison in Fort Worth, Texas, 31 of whom had Covid-19 at the time, had not had heat or hot water for multiple days as a result of the winter storm in Texas.
- 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.
- 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.
- In testimony to state lawmakers on February 3, interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker expressed concern about the state's reliance upon isolation to quell the spread of Covid-19 behind bars. A 14-day quarantine period has forced prison facilities to place many people in solitary confinement, and Baker informed the state legislature that some held in isolation have attempted self-harm, with at least one suicide.
- 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.
- On December 10, the Virginia DOC reported 593 active cases of coronavirus among incarcerated people, in addition to 227 active cases among staff. Since March, at least 35 incarcerated individuals have died from Covid-19 in the Virginia system.
- By January 20, some counties progressed to Phase 1B of their vaccination efforts, extending eligibility to incarcerated people in Virginia. In order to encourage people to volunteer for vaccination, the VDOC began by offering “free email stamps and telephone credits as well as a care package filled with commissary items, including snacks" to those willing to be first in line.
- On February 12, staff at the Prince William County Adult Detention Center in Virginia reported a Covid-19 outbreak among people incarcerated at the facility. The jail has vaccinated 150 of the 572 people held at the jail.
- 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.
- According to an investigation by the independent ombuds office, officials at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Franklin County were responsible for worsening its recent outbreak of Covid-19. The investigation found that missteps by administrators led to 350 infections and the deaths of two incarcerated people.
- Among the first people to receive vaccinations in the state of Washington are incarcerated people and staff members in medical care units. Though the first phase of vaccine distribution in December only provided a small number of vaccines to the Department of Corrections, prison staff and those behind bars will continue to be prioritized according to the highest level of risk.
- On February 2, Spokane County, Washington opened a book-and-release trailer for people accused of low-level crimes, which allows for increased social distancing during the booking process and houses a professional navigator to help defendants access social services. The county hopes the center will curb the spread of Covid-19 because the approximately 13% of people taken to jail who qualify for immediate release will now go through this center.
- By February 4, at least 40 percent of incarcerated people in Washington had tested positive for Covid-19, with no end in sight to the outbreaks and an official count that is likely far below the actual number of cases.
- 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.
- 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.
- On February 8, the Wisconsin DOC announced that 25 incarcerated people had died of Covid-19 in the state. Currently, there are 45 active cases in Wisconsin prisons.
- On February 13, Wisconsin state officials reported that 10,786 people, more than half of those incarcerated in their state's prison system, had been infected with Covid-19. Incarcerated people in the state continue to report crowded conditions that do not allow for the necessary social distancing restrictions to curb the spread of Covid.
- 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.
- 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.
- A 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.
- In an interview published on December 3, aging-in-prisons expert Stephanie Prost explains that "even before the arrival of Covid-19, medical care in U.S. prisons and jails has been typically inadequate, often bordering on life-threatening." But the pandemic has exacerbated these issues, as older populations are more susceptible to the virus and prisons are particularly unable to care for or protect against its spread.
- In a follow-up to its survey of medical co-pay policies during the pandemic, the Prison Policy Initiative discovered in December that three states have made their policies more restrictive in the midst of the pandemic: "Arkansas, Idaho, and Minnesota had previously suspended all co-pays as of March, but have since reinstated co-pays for non-flu-like symptoms. They are now among 29 states that currently suspend co-pays only for visits involving respiratory, flu-related, or COVID-19 symptoms — a policy that discourages many from seeking treatment. Even worse, Nevada has continued to charge co-pays throughout the pandemic, regardless of symptoms."
In the same survey, the Prison Policy Initiative found that three states have improved their policies during the pandemic, as New Jersey suspended all medical co-pays while Delaware and Hawaii suspended co-pays for those with flu-like symptoms.
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.
- 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.
- For information on each state's plan to vaccinate incarcerated individuals, see these resources from the Prison Policy Initiative and COVID Prisons Project.