The United States is a world leader when it comes to incarceration rates. Prisons and jails across the country hold more than 2 million individuals in environments where social distancing and basic preventive measures (like frequent handwashing) are nearly impossible to implement.
While jails are attempting to reduce their inmate population in response to the coronavirus, prisons can’t fully employ the same strategy. So what strategies can prisons implement to protect inmates and staff?
To understand the system response, it’s helpful to understand who’s in prison and how prisons operate.
Prisons house felons with imprisonment terms of more than one year and up to life. Typically, prisons classify inmates by security risk (minimum, medium, maximum) and house them accordingly. Minimum-security inmates often have some freedom of movement and some freedom to congregate together. On the opposite end, maximum-security inmates tend to be more isolated and have strict restrictions on movement.
Unlike short-term jail lockups, prison facilities are designed for long-term detention. Some prisons have dormitory-style housing with common areas for eating, working, and sleeping. Prisons generally have areas for programming, exercising, and segregation. And some prisons have medical staff onsite—but, for those that don’t, prisoner transports to hospitals are common. A prison may also have geriatric or medical units to housing aging and medically vulnerable populations.
Similar to jails, prisons need staff to run and maintain security. Staff rotate in and out prison facilities and back home to families and communities—creating more potential for introducing or spreading infectious diseases.
In the face of coronavirus, short-term jail lockups are attempting to reduce the inmate population. But this strategy doesn’t work as well for prisons that house dangerous individuals with long sentences. To some extent, prisons can safely release individuals (and some states are doing just that). But how do prisons safely release prisoners and what other strategies can prisons employ?
Some states are attempting to reduce the prison population by releasing individuals who are not public safety risks.
Releasing prisoners nearing parole. A few states have reduced their prison population by speeding up the parole process (parole is a conditional release period that may be granted near the end of a person’s sentence) or by granting early release for those nearing their parole or release date.
Compassionate and other forms of early release. State laws may permit forms of early release that (potentially) could be used during the coronavirus outbreak. These laws generally authorize the head of the correction’s department or prison to grant medical furloughs (to seek outside medical care), compassionate release (for advanced age, terminal illness, or family crisis), or earned early release (for successful completion of a drug program or other programming).
Many prisons have decided to eliminate in-person visitation by family and friends. For incarcerated individuals and their families, this decision takes a toll on morale. Prisoners might still have the ability to communicate with family and friends by phone or video conferencing—but usually at a cost.
A few prisons have reduced or waived phone fees while in-person visits are suspended.
Many prisons require medical co-pays for inmate healthcare visits, medications, and testing. Co-pays can discourage inmates from seeking medical attention for coronavirus symptoms. Some states are eliminating, reducing, or suspending all medical co-pays or co-pays for testing or treatment relating to coronavirus symptoms.
While leaders and health professionals are urging individuals to social distance, isolate, and practice good hygiene, these preventive measures can be difficult to implement in prison environments. How can prisons adjust their operations?
Prisoner movement within prison facilities—such as going to work, mealtime, educational programs, or drug treatment—usually involves supervised, structured movement in groups. To reduce close interactions among prisoners, some prisons are suspending nonessential programs, limiting group numbers, and staggering movement of inmates. Prisons may also restrict transfers of inmates between facilities or to court. For court hearings, video conferencing may be an option.
In the event an inmate tests positive for coronavirus, emergency guidelines direct prisons to prepare isolation areas or quarantine units, in addition to other safety measures. Prisons are also encouraged to coordinate with hospitals on how to handle illnesses and transport prisoners.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but one of the key recommendations from the CDC for prisons is to provide free hand soap to inmates and allow frequent handwashing. Prisons often prohibit personal possession of sanitizers containing alcohol and restrict or charge for soap and other personal hygiene items. Some prisons are waiving fees for hand soap and providing paper towels to inmates. The CDC also recommends providing cloth face masks.
Prison conditions set the stage for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Advocacy groups, health officials, and public safety officials are continuing to sound the alarm around the country in hopes that more prisons will implement strategies to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks. The Marshall Project is tracking COVID-19 cases and deaths in state and federal prisons.
Over 225,000 prisoner cases of coronavirus were reported through late November, with Texas having the highest numbers and South Dakota the highest rates. More than 1,500 prisoners have died. You can find data for each state at themarshallproject.org.
Preventing and mitigating coronavirus outbreaks in prisons is important not just to protect inmates but also to protect the community, as staff circulate between prison facilities, their homes, and their communities. More than 55,000 staff cases have been reported, including 105 deaths. But not all staff cases are reported, so this number could be much higher.
Updated: December 4, 2020.