Impact of COVID-19 on Corrections

On any given day in the United States, approximately 2.3 million adults are housed within 5000 correctional and detention facilities. Additionally, tens of thousands of Americans work within these institutions. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on inmates and staff within our nation’s correctional system cannot be denied. During what might be described as the “height” of the pandemic, for example, between March and June 2020, more than 11 percent of the over 215,000 COVID-19 tests that were given to inmates in local jails were positive. Research reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that incarcerated people are infected by COVID-19 at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall infection rate. 

The New York Times reports that as of April 16, 2021, over 661,000 incarcerated people and staff nationwide have been infected with COVID-19. At least 2990 of these people have died. The New York Times also reports that one in three persons who are incarcerated in state prisons and 39 percent of inmates in federal facilities nationwide have been infected with COVID-19.

Concern over protecting the health and safety of both correctional system inmates as well as employees has become a top priority for those running local jails, state prisons and federal prisons. Here, we will discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted, and continues to affect, our corrections system in the United States.

COVID-19 Statistics in Correctional and Detention Facilities

As of September 2021, the Bureau of Prisons reported that, of its 145,945 inmates in institutions and community-based facilities, and its 26,000 staff, 484 federal inmates and 501 BOP staff had tested positive for COVID-19.  Over 43,000 inmates and 7700 staff had recovered from the disease. As of this date, 258 federal prison inmates and six BOP staff members had died from COVID-19.  Over 225,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had also been administered to federal prison inmates and staff. 

In March 2021, the U.S. Marshals Service, with 64,300 inmates, reported 949 active COVID-19 cases; 10,877 who had recovered; and 30 deaths. Also as of March 2021, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with 336 inmates, had 146 positive COVID-19 cases, had run 1005 COVID-19 tests, and reported 0 deaths. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with 14,300 detainees, reported 359 active cases of COVID-19 as of March 2021, 9840 total cases, and nine deaths.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through June 2021, per research conducted by The Marshall Project, a total of 398,627 persons in federal and state prisons had tested positive for COVID-19. They tallied 2715 federal and state prisoner deaths during that period due to COVID-19. Researchers working with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) found, unsurprisingly, that correctional facilities within states that were hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as New Jersey and Michigan, also reflected this increase in COVID-19 cases among both inmates and staff within their prisons and jails. 

The Marshall Project researchers also found that, from the beginning of the pandemic through June 2021, there were 114,327 positive COVID-19 cases among state and federal prison staff in the U.S. At that time, 209 staff deaths were related to COVID-19. As many states underreported numbers, actual positive case and death statistics are likely higher. 

Challenges COVID-19 Poses in Prisons and Jails

COVID-19 poses a variety of unique challenges to inmates and staff within federal, state and local prisons and jails. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Overcrowding of prisoners facilitating spread of virus
  • Facility structure and physical layout not conducive to social distancing
  • Vulnerable populations, including older adults, making up much of the prison population
  • Reduction of already low staff numbers
  • Inadequate security stemming from fewer staff leading to more violence and abuse in prisons
  • Poor guidance from executives on what to do to contain problem
  • Inconsistency in mitigation strategies across facility types
  • Unsafe methods used to transport inmates and detainees from one place to another

When one looks at the structure and organization of the United States’ prisons and jails, it quickly becomes evident that they were not built with a highly contagious virus such as COVID-19 in mind. Correctional and detention facilities were not designed to implement and facilitate social distancing, medical isolation, or quarantine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that the confined nature of these facilities increases the potential for the spread of COVID-19 once it is introduced into a facility. The open areas for housing and inmate congregation that are found in correctional facilities, for example, do not lend themselves well to social distancing measures. Likewise, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities also house inmates together in large areas and were often unable to implement social distancing measures. 

Once an inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 or has been exposed to a positive case within one of these facilities, concerns arose regarding the correctional facilities’ abilities to medically isolate, or quarantine, inmates and detainees. Eleven percent of ICE facilities, for example, did not have the capacity to quarantine detainees who were suspected of showing COVID-19 symptoms. Federal prisons, such as Butner Federal Corrections Complex in North Carolina, were also challenged by not being able to quarantine inmates who medically qualified for quarantine due to the unavailability of space. 

How Correctional Institutions Responded to COVID-19 Challenges

The CDC identified and has recommended the following strategies that could help correctional and detention facilities stop the spread of COVID-19:

  • Regular screening of inmates and detainees for symptoms of COVID-19
  • Isolation of inmates and detainees showing symptoms
  • Physical distancing within all areas of institutions
  • Intensified cleaning of prison facilities
  • Infection control training for all staff
  • Disinfection of high-touch surfaces in facilities
  • Wearing cloth face coverings (inmates, detainees and staff)

One of the remedies sought by federal prisons in response to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic was to reduce the number of inmates and detainees. Many of these facilities were already overcrowded, so reducing their population made sense. Indian Country detention facilities, for example, worked with tribal courts to amend sentences or grant early release or home confinement for those charged with nonviolent crimes. The Bureau of Prisons and other federal correctional systems also transferred some eligible inmates to home confinement.

How COVID-19 Affected Existing Staffing Challenges in Correctional Institutions 

Correctional officers and staff at prisons and institutions are considered to be essential personnel, and as such, have worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many American correctional facilities already faced staffing shortages prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in both the correctional and healthcare areas. Because of these shortages, some BOP facilities found it difficult to fully implement COVID-19 mitigation and containment strategies. Furthermore, COVID-19 worsened the already low staffing levels at many institutions, limiting staff’s abilities to focus on security measures within facilities. 

Only two-thirds of correctional facilities in the U.S. reported that they had adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for correctional staff. Therefore, many inmates and detainees were transferred from one facility to another, or to court, without staff being properly attired in PPE. This potentially spread COVID-19 into other areas and facilities. Early in the pandemic, prior to transferring inmates out of a facility, institutions routinely did not test them for COVID-19, furthering the potential spread of the virus. 

Researchers for the NCCHC found that correctional staff are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 in facilities, just as inmates are. Barring visitors from the “outside,” therefore, is not necessarily a way to keep COVID-19 out of prisons. Staff need more training in infection control and access to PPE. The risk that corrections officers face transfers to a higher COVID-19 risk for their families as well.