Over the past 18 months, as the world has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, those detained in jails, prisons, and detention centers have been severely impacted due to lack of physical distancing, proper sanitation methods, and the failure to prioritize testing and vaccinations. Common conditions in jails and prisons have never been conducive to decent health for inmates – lack of access to proper medical care, food quality, and overcrowding have all been huge causes for concern for those advocating for prisoners’ rights since long before the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, jails and prisons have not been isolated from outside communities. In fact, there are many documented stories of correctional staff and other officers contracting the virus outside of work and bringing it into prisons or jails, or bringing the virus to their communities from prisons and jails, resulting in large outbreaks. Thus, jails and prisons have been extremely conducive to the spread of the virus, resulting in a large number of infections and deaths.
Although jails throughout the country reported population reductions early in the pandemic due to the release of inmates, populations were rising again by November. Stories of overcrowding are abundant. For example, at a correctional institute in Ohio, inmates attempted to use bedsheets to separate themselves; however, four in five ended up infected. Although more attention has been drawn to conditions like these in jails and prisons, a lack of data reporting by carceral agencies has prevented the public from being able to understand the full impact of the pandemic on incarcerated persons. Organizations like the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project, and The COVID Prison Project have been working to collect data and information as there has been a lack of transparency from agencies in providing adequate or correct data on the number of cases, safety protocols, and deaths within their jails and prisons. Many states’ Departments of Corrections rolled back or stopped reporting their COVID-19 data altogether this past summer, despite the surges of cases across America due to the Delta variant.
For example, in Georgia, the Georgia Department of Corrections has not reported any new COVID deaths since March 14, 2021, and recently they have halted all public reporting data. The GDC has the second-highest case fatality rate, or percent of those with reported infections who die, among all the correctional systems in the United States. In Florida, which along with Texas counts for 40 percent of new hospitalizations across the country, the Department of Corrections said reporting data was no longer “operationally necessary.” As of October 2021, more than 542,000 incarcerated people and correctional staff members have tested positive for coronavirus and at least 2,700 have passed away. In December 2020, at the peak of the virus, more than 25,000 prisoners tested positive in a single week. Limited testing, as well as deaths that were not counted, point to the fact that these numbers are likely much higher. The New York Times noted that more than 50 men and women who died of COVID-19 in local jails were awaiting trial for charges they were not yet convicted of.
Although a number of federal, state, and local policymakers have taken steps in the forms of increasing releases, reducing admissions, and changing probation and parole requirements, these changes are scattered, with many counties and states not instituting changes. These inconsistent policies have left certain populations, especially those with underlying health conditions or of older age, at a high risk of complications.
As of October 5, BOP had administered 228,363 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the vaccination rate is 70% for those incarcerated and 55% for staff members. For state jails and prisons, the numbers differ drastically depending on the state.
This is a critical time as infection rates decline in prisons and across America; however, this does not mean that state and federal correctional agencies can refrain from reporting data. The public must be informed in order to call on the relevant groups/governments to effectuate changes in America’s carceral system that have been necessary and demanded since long before the pandemic.