The NCSL Blog

05

By Erin McMillen

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to health disparities across the United States, revealing how certain communities are hardest hit and which are most vulnerable to infectious disease.

prisoner's hands through blogInmates in federal and state prisons are experiencing a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 cases and deaths, which are tracked by the Marshall Project in partnership with the Associated Press using data from state corrections departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

As of July 28, at least 78,526 cases have been reported in both federal and state prisons with a significant increase the week of July 14. Texas is experiencing the highest number of cases in state prisons at 15,241 total cases, a rate of 1,198 cases per every 10,000 prisoners.

At least 766 inmates in prisons have died due to COVID-19. Federal prisons, with a reported rate of seven deaths per 100,000 prisoners, continue to see higher mortality rates than several individual states. However, prisons in Texas, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey have even higher mortality rates, ranging from eight deaths per 10,000 prisoners in Texas to 29 deaths per 10,000 prisoners in New Jersey.

COVID-19 cases among prison staff have also been on the rise, with at least 17,476 reported cases and at least 55 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends expanding testing in prisons and jails to help manage cases and prevent further transmission.

Due to the congregate nature of living in prisons, there is little opportunity for social distancing, a lack of basic sanitary supplies, and high rates of chronic disease. Additionally, there is a lack of protection equipment given to incarcerated individuals and corrections officers to combat the spread of COVID-19. In February, the BOP established an Incident Action Plan for the pandemic using the Incident Command System and interim guidance from the CDC. The BOP also implemented its approved Pandemic Influenza Plan, which includes screening procedures and CDC guidance for preventing the spread of the disease.

Jails differ from prisons on transmissibility; jails are smaller facilities than prisons, but they generally house people who have been convicted of lower-level crimes and are serving shorter sentences or who are pretrial detainees. Intakes and releases occur more frequently in jails, increasing the likelihood of COVID-19 spread.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in conjunction with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee and Washington State University, found that depending on the social distancing measures put in place, community spread from infections in jails could add between 99,000 and 188,000 people to the virus’ U.S. death toll. To reduce the number of cases among incarcerated individuals, state and local corrections administrators have used strategies such as:

  • Reducing jail admissions.
  • Releasing people from jails and prisons when possible.
  • Reducing unnecessary contact, visits and technical violations for people on probation and parole.
  • Eliminating medical copays for correctional medical visits and testing.
  • Reducing or suspending prison visitation.
  • Reducing or eliminating the costs of phone calls and video communications.

Although many of these actions are implemented by state agencies or local jurisdictions, some states are considering or have enacted legislation in response to COVID-19; more information can be found here.

A handful of states proposed or enacted legislation regarding the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. Pending legislation in North Carolina, SB 774, directs the Department of Public Safety and Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice to develop a plan regarding future response efforts for an emergency related to the coronavirus disease. Colorado executive order, D 2020-016 suspends temporary regulatory statutes concerning criminal justice during the coronavirus public health emergency. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) issued the executive order to suspend the Colorado Department of Corrections' duty to receive and take custody of prisoners pursuant to C.R.S. Section 16-11-301 and -308.

Many states have reduced the number of people they have in custody and revised policies concerning policing, imprisoning, visitation, and more.

Legislatures will be tracking the outcomes of these changes in order to gauge their public safety impacts. Policy changes during the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to affect the spread of infectious disease in correctional and detention facilities during the pandemic and for the future.

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Erin McMillen is an Intern in NCSL’s health program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.