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Reducing Jail and Prison Populations During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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

Last Updated: July 30, 2020
Published: March 27, 2020

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

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

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

Reducing Jail and Prison Populations

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

As of July 28, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that there are 3,799 people in BOP custody and 460 BOP staff members who have tested positive for Covid-19. According to the BOP, 6,583 incarcerated individuals and 681 BOP staff members have recovered from Covid-19. 101 people incarcerated in BOP facilities and 1 BOP staff member have died.

  • 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 will 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. 
  • According to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, as of April 21 the BOP had released 1,300 people to home confinement in response to Covid-19. Although this is a step in the right direction, this number is only a small fraction of the 170,000 individuals in BOP custody. 
  • 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 has once again changed the criteria used to consider incarcerated individuals for early release. The new standard broadens 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. As of May 20, 9 incarcerated people have died at FCI Elkton, which is as of writing was the highest number of Covid-19 deaths of all federal prisons with confirmed cases. On May 26, the Supreme Court announced that they will not block U.S. District Judge James Gwin's order to move at-risk incarcerated individuals from from FCI Elkton. 
  • 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 6, state prison officials in California announced that as many as 17,600 people incarcerated there may be released early due to coronavirus. This would be 70% more than previously estimated, and may include some people incarcerated for violent offenses.

State/Local Responses

  • On March 25, the Governor of Colorado 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
  • 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 DOC is also evaluating people with less than 4 years on their sentences to see if they can retroactively apply "good time" credits for early release
  • On March 29, the Governor of Michigan 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 can safely be diverted for treatment. 
  • California is granting early release to 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. 
  • 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 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. 
  • New York State announced that it will release 1,100 people incarcerated across the state who were imprisoned because of parole violations. Note that 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
  • On April 7, Gov. DeWine of Ohio announced that his office is recommending 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. 
  • Gov. Lujan Grisham of New Mexico 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 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 vulnerably 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.
  • On April 10, Gov. Murphy of New Jersey announced that he will sign an executive order that will 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.
  • Gov. Brown has 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. 
  • Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma is commuting the prison sentences of more than 450 incarcerated individuals to decrease prison overcrowding and reduce the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak in prisons. 
  • On April 10, Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania 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 13, Gov. Jay Inslee's office announced that Washington state will 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." As of April 22, about 41 individuals had received work release furloughs, 293 had their sentences commuted and another 600 were on a list to be considered for a release into the community using electronic monitoring.
  • 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 non-violent offenses and those who are due for release within the next 6 months.
  • Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland 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. As of April 19, Los Angeles County has released close to 25 percent of its jail population.
  • As of April 19, Los Angeles County has released close to 25 percent of its jail population.
  • 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.
  • On April 22, a federal judge ordered officials at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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 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.
  • 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 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • In late April, Virginia lawmakers granted the Virginia DOC the power torelease people convicted of non-violent crimes early, so long as the individual had a year or less left before their original release date. As of mid-May, 130 people have been released. 
  • In April, Gov. Hutchison of Arkansas issued a directive asking the state BOC to consider the early release of some people in incarcerated in state prisons. As of May 12, 300 people have been released from Arkansas state prisons. 
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • On May 21, Judge Linda Parker ruled that medically vulnerably people must be released from the Oakland County, Michigan jail. The order requires the jail, within three business days, to provide a list of all medically vulnerable incarcerated individuals, their health vulnerabilities and their criminal histories. The court will determine if someone should be released, and on what terms. 
  • In May, the DOC Commissioner of Connecticut granted discretionary release to 560 people who had served at least 40% of their sentences.
  • In Oregon, many incarcerated individuals are resisting COVID testing because they may lose their limited privileges if they are transferred to DOC quarantine units. As of May 15, Oregon’s Governor Brown has yet to agree to any mass releases, even though 70% of Oregon’s correctional cases are present in one minimum security prison.
  • 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. (June 1)
  • As of June 2, Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has still not released the 1,800 individuals eligible for release under his April 10 reprieve order, inspiring hunger strikes across a coalition of organizations.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 May decision to limit releases.
  • 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.
  • California has 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.
  • 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.
  • In the first week of July, active cases at San Quentin State Prison in California have increased from 1,000 to nearly 1,400, or by 40%. People incarcerated there are reporting horrific conditions, as well as widespread illness and death. The prison is currently housing about 700 people over its capacity.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Starting the week of July 13, Wyoming will test everyone who is currently incarcerated 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.
  • At the peak of the summer, Indiana Women’s Prison is struggling to balance Covid-19 precautions and safety. To prevent spread of the virus, the 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.
  • North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety has signed a 90 day contract with a Quality Inn & Suites in Durham, so they can quarantine people who have completed their sentences and are being released. The contract will start July 15.
  • 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.
  • Following a surge in Oregon’s correctional cases, more than a third of people incarcerated in the state are now in quarantine as of July 20 – about 3,000 individuals total.
  • Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has refused recent 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.
  • 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.
  • In response to a late-July spike in cases, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear is slated to authorize the early release of nearly 700 more individuals from state prisons at the beginning of August. The release criteria will be 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 from March through June.
  • 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.
  • Advocates in Arizona are 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 21% of people incarcerated in Arizona state prisons have been tested for the coronavirus.
  • After six weeks and 3.3 million dollars of testing, North Carolina officials have announced that 2.1 percent of the incarcerated population tested positive for Covid-19.

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 continues in the Montana DOC in groups fewer than 10, utilizing video conferencing when possible.
  • BOP facilities have restricted telecommunication access in response to ongoing protests, so some inmates have only been able to communicate through the postal system. (June)
  • 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.
  • Three companies (Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link Corp, and 3Cinteractive Corp.) that facilitate collect calls made from US jails and prisons have had a class action suit brought against them in Maryland. 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 cellphone 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.

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 waives 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. We will update this page as more information comes in. 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."
  • 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 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, including one in the Bay Area. (June 8)
  • 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 are striking as of 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 requiring correctional officers to wear face masks. (June 19)
  • After COVID cases tripled at San Quentin state prison in the last two weeks (as of June 18), organizers are 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 recently 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 Governor Asa Hutchinson addressed Arkansas’ recent spike in Covid 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 are alleging this August that prison conditions are 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, despite the fact that Florida’s prisons continue to have many significant Covid outbreaks.

Community Supervision

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

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

Additional Resources

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