Protecting Incarcerated People

In the time of COVID-19, we must not shy away from what is happening in the nation’s prisons and jails

Movement Advancement Project


The public health threat of COVID-19 has shown us now, more than ever, the importance of mutual aid and community care. As part of our commitment to speed equality and opportunity for all, MAP will be publishing a series of Medium blog posts that advance the conversation around vulnerable communities who may be particularly at risk to the effects of the virus and the economic downturn. In the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic that affects us all, this series will shed light on the particular challenges facing all of our communities, as well as resources from partners and allied organizations to support you through the pandemic.

While individuals and families practice social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, little has been done to address the spread of the virus among a population for whom physical distancing is not possible: incarcerated people. In the time of COVID-19, we must not shy away from what is happening in the nation’s prisons, jails, juvenile justice facilities, and immigration detention centers.

Recent widespread testing among people incarcerated in Ohio’s prisons found more than 3,300 cases of COVID-19. One facility alone reported 1,828 cases, or 73% of its total incarcerated population. As a result, more than a quarter of all of Ohio’s confirmed cases are in the state prison system, indicating just how devastating an outbreak can be among incarcerated populations. And it’s not just Ohio: the virus is spreading rapidly in local, state, and federal jails, prisons, and detention facilities across the country.

There are an estimated 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S., and according to the Legal Aid Society, the virus spreads in prisons and jails at nearly nine times the rate it does in the general population. Within these spaces, COVID-19 safety precautions — such as washing hands, cleaning spaces, and physical distancing — are simply not possible due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. What’s more, these facilities operate in institutions that have provided inadequate health care even under normal circumstances, evidenced by the recent deaths of immigrants who received substandard care in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Prisons and jails are currently struggling to provide needed medical supplies and masks to ensure the safety of incarcerated people. And every day, correctional officers, health care workers, and people admitted and released from these facilities increase exposure, potentially harming both incarcerated people and the communities surrounding these facilities.

Many incarcerated people are in poor health, and due to longer sentencing policies of recent decades, the prison population is aging — two major risk factors for COVID-19. One third of people in federal prisons have pre-existing medical conditions and roughly 10,000 are over age 60. LGBTQ people are also overrepresented in U.S. prison and jails. And with Black and Latinx people comprising 70% of the prison population in federal custody, prison outbreaks would disproportionally impact people of color, including LGBTQ people of color.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative, No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, 2020

The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is just as substantial for incarcerated youth living in juvenile justice facilities. On any given day, up to 57,000 youth are incarcerated in the U.S., with an overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth. Within these facilities, one in five youth identify as LGBTQ, and 85% are LGBTQ youth of color. Among incarcerated girls, 40% identify as LGBTQ.

Source: MAP, Unjust: How the Broken Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems Fail LGBTQ Youth, 2016

Prior to the Justice Department’s announcement to reduce populations in federal prisons, many cities and states took steps to release people from state facilities to mitigate the spread of the virus. At federal correctional facilities, certain nonviolent and medically vulnerable people have been released; however, only 7% of black men would be deemed low-risk enough to get out of prison. And, ICE has been incredibly reluctant to release immigrants from local jails and private detention centers, including some who are waiting asylum hearings and those who are children — despite 253 confirmed cases at ICE facilities.

COVID-19 Is a Criminal Justice Issue

Advocates, government officials and federal defenders, and public health experts have been calling on facilities to:

  • Release people, particularly those who are elderly and those with chronic diseases, disabilities, and complex medical needs who are at higher risk for COVID-19 in both state prisons and federal facilities. This is important, as there are nearly 1.3 million people in state prisons compared to 226,000 in federal facilities.
  • Release all people held on probation and parole technical violation detainers or sentences.
  • Reduce jail and prison admissions: allow sentences to be delayed or not require jail time for misdemeanors that do not present public safety risk.
  • Agreeing to the early release of anyone approaching their release date.
  • Eliminating medical copays for people in prisons and jails.¹

Learn more from The Justice Collaborative.

Additionally, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together (FIRST) Act, which would move immigrants out of detention and halt immigration enforcement against individuals not deemed a significant public safety risk during this coronavirus public health emergency and future health emergencies.

Take Action

It is the responsibility of our government leaders to further prevent the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities across the country. Use your voice to write your local officials to demand decarceral guidelines to prevent the deaths of vulnerable people.

¹ Incarcerated people are typically expected to pay for medical visits, which can be difficult given both the economic challenges experienced by many people before they were incarcerated and the incredibly low wages they are paid, if at all, while in prison.



Movement Advancement Project

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