Correctional facilities face enormous challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The most difficult of these is enabling people to maintain safe physical distance in shared spaces that are smaller, on average, than cruise ship cabins or shared bedrooms in nursing homes. Incarcerated individuals are also more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, which can exacerbate the impact of the disease. Other challenges include limited medical resources as well as a daily churn of staff members, visitors, and newly admitted individuals.

At the time of this report’s release, the CDC reported that across 1,225 impacted facilities, there had been more than 168,000 confirmed cases (138,680 residents, 29,903 staff) since the outbreak began and more than 1,000 confirmed deaths (1,007 residents, 54 staff). COVID-19 cases in such facilities increased rapidly in July and August 2020, growing faster than cases in the general U.S. population.

According to a study produced for the Commission, the rate of COVID-19 cases in state and federal prisons is 4.3 times higher than the overall U.S. rate. The COVID-19 mortality rate in these prisons is 2.1 times higher than that of the general population after adjusting for the sex, age, and race/ethnicity of the people who are incarcerated.

National case and mortality rates within prisons conceal a great deal of variance across states. Thirteen states exhibited mortality rates within prisons that were three or more times what would be expected. On the other hand, six states (Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, and Mississippi) had prison mortality rates that were lower than those in the general population.


Source: COVID-19 in State and Federal Prisons. Prepared for Commission by Kevin T. Schnepel. Data as of August 15, 2020.

One survey conducted in August found that while nearly all states were distributing masks to staff and incarcerated individuals, only about half of states required mask use by staff, and less than one-third required mask use by those in custody. Testing is also inconsistent across institutions within jurisdictions. Within facilities, broad testing of the population for COVID-19 is more accurate than testing based on displayed symptoms, and also a more helpful tool in controlling transmission. Facilities using mass testing found a median 12.1-fold increase in confirmed cases compared to symptom-based testing alone. This ratio is similar to estimates of actual versus confirmed infections in the general U.S. population.

Large facilities are clearly the most important contributors to the volume of COVID-19 cases in prisons. Large prisons account for 83% of the total cases and 87% of the total number of reported deaths. Small prisons exhibit lower rates of COVID-19 outbreaks, but cases per 100,000 incarcerated people are high on average due to their small population size. There also are indications that the age and architectural design of correctional facilities may influence case rates, with factors such as ventilation systems and cells with solid doors versus open bars potentially affecting infection rates.

Jails present a significant risk of community transmission due to high rates of turnover of individuals detained for short periods of time. But currently, case and mortality information is available for only a handful of jails. While the typical prison has reduced populations by approximately five percent, the typical jail, which can collaborate more easily with police and courts to expedite releases and limit admissions, has reduced populations by approximately 30%.

According to another study produced for the Commission, jail populations began to decline immediately after the issuance of the White House Coronavirus Guidelines on March 16, reaching a 31% average decrease by May 2. The reductions were achieved through reduced admissions as well as releases. There were significant differences among jurisdictions in terms of decreases, which ranged from nine to 66%. Between May 2 and July 20, local jail populations rose again, by 12%, on average, despite steep increases in new COVID-19 cases.


Source: COVID-19, Jails, and U.S. Public Safety. Prepared for the Commission by Anna Harvey and Orion Taylor. Data as of July 20, 2020.

The initial jail population declines were accompanied by changes in the makeup of those populations. As the population dropped, there were increases in the proportion of people in jail who were booked on felony charges, who were male, who were 25 or younger, and who were Black. These changes in the population composition persisted even as jail populations began to rise.

After March 16, people released from jail were 34% more likely to be booked on felony charges and had been detained for 71% longer than those released just prior to that date. Despite these changes, there were no differences in 30-, 60-, or 90-day rebooking rates for those released after March 16, compared to those released earlier. Generally, rebooking rates for jailed individuals released after March 16 remained below pre-pandemic rebooking rates. This was true for felonies as well as misdemeanors.

According to an American Probation and Parole Association survey, 67% of responding community supervision agencies reported having crisis protocols in place prior to the pandemic. Nearly all (90%) established some form of teleworking, although less than half (46%) indicated they had adequate resources to do so. The vast majority of agencies suspended in-office reporting (95%), in-person group activities (87%), and home or field contacts (73%). In addition, many agencies suspended arrests for technical violations (66%).


Prevent COVID-19 infections from entering facilities.

Prevent COVID-19 infections from entering correctional facilities by testing, educating, quarantining, and cohorting new admissions; halting/limiting transfers, admissions, in-person visitation, and the use of non-essential staff; and diverting individuals from incarceration for minor technical violations of supervision, minor offenses, failure to appear, non-payment of fines and fees, inability to pay small bail amounts, and other infractions.


Control COVID-19 infections within facilities.

Control COVID-19 infections inside correctional facilities by implementing a broad testing protocol that includes 100% entry testing, molecular testing of all symptomatic patients and contacts, and screening of all asymptomatic individuals using rapid antigen tests on a frequent basis; implementing a personal protection plan for incarcerated people, including education, free and increased access to soap, hand sanitizer, masks (surgical masks wherever possible), cleaning supplies, and air purifiers, if possible; limiting movement of staff and incarcerated individuals within facilities; subject to public safety considerations, releasing individuals to house arrest or electronic monitoring, paroling at-risk (medically compromised/elderly) individuals when appropriate, and significantly and safely reducing incarcerated populations overall.


Prevent COVID-19 infections from reentering communities.

Prevent COVID-19 infections from entering the community from a correctional facility by testing and quarantining incarcerated people prior to release; conducting regular testing and health screening of staff; and partnering with community-based organizations to facilitate release and reentry.


Prevent COVID-19 infections in community supervision.

Prevent COVID-19 infections by reducing in-person contact between community supervision officers and supervised people; providing service and supervision to support successful reentry and limit reoffending by limiting or modifying drug testing; limiting standard conditions; reducing in-person check-ins by expanding phone and video meetings as needed; and terminating supervision for lower-risk individuals nearing the end of their supervision terms.


Protect rights, dignity, and well-being.

Protect the rights, humanity, dignity, and well-being of incarcerated and supervised people and staff members by using technology such as free and low-cost phone and video calls to allow incarcerated people to maintain access to counsel, family, and friends; to the extent possible, providing on-line alternatives to in-person educational and vocational programing; ensuring that quarantine conditions are not the same as solitary confinement/punitive segregation; providing healthy cooked meals and healthcare for incarcerated people, and waiving all co-pays for COVID-related illness; communicating with victims of crime/survivors and partnering with advocacy organizations; and providing staff with COVID-specific sick time separate from normal PTO/sick time to encourage symptomatic staff to stay home. Ensure that these principles of respect, dignity, and well-being guide the implementation of all other recommendations.


Execute a communications plan.

Implement a COVID-19 transparency and communications plan that provides for regular reporting to state or federal supervisory agencies of the number of infections and fatalities among incarcerated or supervised people and staff and their medical status; the specific status of agency action; and compliance with CDC recommendations. The communications plan should also provide for the prompt notification of family and counsel of an incarcerated person's infection.