Covid-19’s Impact on People in Prison

Updated 01.07.21

People who are incarcerated are at great risk of sickness and death as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and more must be done to release people who are imprisoned and are not a threat to public safety or are elderly or infirm. The inability to quarantine or practice social distancing, together with overcrowding, imperils the lives of many people incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Incarcerated people are infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate, according to research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The death rate of inmates (39 deaths per 100,000) is also higher than the national rate (29 deaths per 100,000).

As of January 7, 2021, more than 433,000 incarcerated people and staff have been infected with coronavirus and at least 1,960 have died, The New York Times reports. The number of infections and deaths is likely even higher than the reported number because jails and prisons are conducting limited testing on incarcerated people. Many facilities won’t test incarcerated people who die after showing symptoms of Covid-19.

Data from The Times shows that some of the largest outbreaks in the country have been linked to correctional facilities, including Marion Correctional Institution, with 2,443 cases, Miami-Dade County Jail, with 2,099 cases, and Ohio’s Pickaway Correctional Institution, with 1,791 cases. California’s San Quentin State Prison had the largest known coronavirus cluster in the country after more than 2,600 incarcerated people and staff were infected; more than 25 incarcerated people have died.

The virus is spreading rapidly in prisons and jails across the country, and the examples continue to mount. In Texas, when the state began testing every incarcerated person in June, the number of infected prisoners and staff more than quadrupled (to 7,900). By September 9, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported more than 21,000 positive cases and 145 deaths.

And nearly 60% of the 1,400 men incarcerated at Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility tested positive for Covid-19—that’s at least 785 positive cases and 14 deaths. Lakeland is like hundreds of other prisons in America in its design and structure and the makeup of its incarcerated population. Located in Coldwater, it houses 1,403 people who have been sentenced to spend years, decades, or the rest of their lives in prison.

Many of these prisoners will die, as will thousands of other incarcerated people in the U.S. because of mass incarceration and our carceral policies. The pandemic has exposed serious problems with American incarceration that need to be addressed.


At year-end 2018, the prison custody population in 25 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons had a total number of prisoners in custody that met or exceeded their minimum number of beds.

Because prisons have more people incarcerated than they were designed to hold, incarcerated people are crammed into dorms and warehoused in rooms with bunks sometimes three beds high and only inches apart.

Social distancing is not an option under these conditions. And at Lakeland and many other prisons, it’s impossible to quarantine large numbers of infected prisoners. As a result, the risk of infection for imprisoned people and correctional staff is extremely high.

Vulnerable Populations

After decades of extreme sentencing, older adults today make up a larger share of the state prison population than people age 18 to 24. Older people are at a higher risk of serious complications from Covid-19. Older people in prison are more likely to be in poor health and have limited access to quality medical services, which increases the risk of death in a public health crisis.

“Tough on crime” policies including three-strikes laws and truth-in-sentencing schemes have dramatically increased sentences for people convicted of felonies and significantly reduced eligibility for parole. Accordingly, the percentage of people in state prisons who are 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016—to nearly 150,000 older people incarcerated in state correctional facilities in 2016.

Generally, people in prison—where a lot of time is spent sitting around and food is typically poor quality—tend to be in worse health than those outside prison, The Lancet reports. Lack of access to quality medical care means that older people in prison suffer more often from chronic health conditions like hypertension, asthma, and diabetes that increase the risk of serious complications from the coronavirus.

Violence and Abuse

The Covid-19 crisis has reduced the number of correctional staff, and in many places states are unable to provide adequate security, which leads to more violence and abuse within jails and prisons.

In Alabama, which has the highest rate of prison homicide in the nation, two incarcerated men died violently in two different prisons in less than one week in March, and a third was killed in April. In June, 67-year-old Moses Knight became the 15th person murdered in an Alabama prison since the U.S. Department of Justice informed Alabama officials last year that the state’s prison system “routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners” by failing to protect them from rampant violence and sexual abuse.


Jails are filled with people who have not been convicted of a crime,1 Some 74% of people held in jails across the U.S. are not convicted of any crime. Prison Policy Initiative, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020 (Mar. 24, 2020). many of whom need medical care and social services that jails consistently fail to provide. Even without a public health crisis, too many people in jail are denied adequate medical care.

Cook County Jail in Chicago, one of the nation’s largest jails, reported a rate of coronavirus infection that was higher than almost anywhere else in the country, with more than 1,018 people testing positive so far. Miami-Dade County Jail has the second-largest cluster of cases nationwide, with 2,443 cases.

A federal court ordered the Orange County Jail in Southern California to follow CDC guidelines to protect incarcerated people after the jail, which houses over 3,000 pretrial detainees and inmates, saw an increase of more than 300 confirmed cases in a little more than a month. Despite evidence that the jail misrepresented under oath the measures it was taking to combat the virus, the Supreme Court stayed the court order last week.

Unlike prisons, local governments across the U.S. have significantly reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Early Release for At-Risk Populations

Advocates, family members, and prosecutors have called for prisons to release the most vulnerable people, especially the elderly and infirm, who are at the greatest risk from Covid-19.

As the pandemic has spiked this summer, 71% of the 668 jails tracked by the Prison Policy Initiative saw population increases from May 1 to July 22, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22 than they did in March.

Most state prison systems show only small population reductions in response to the pandemic. The Prison Policy Initiative reported:

For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, and to release those that are already in confinement for those same technical violations. (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.) Similarly, other obvious places to start are releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are in minimum security facilities and on work-release, and those who are medically fragile or older.

In New Jersey, which has the highest prison death rate in the nation, lawmakers passed legislation at the beginning of August that is expected to lead to the release of more than 3,000 people who are within a year of completing their sentences. More than 2,000 incarcerated people were released in November, and by March 2021, officials expect to have reduced the state’s prison population by about 35%.

In July, California’s the governor ordered the release of up to 8,000 nonviolent offenders by the end of August, and more than 4,000 were released between July 10 and August 9. The state’s prison population dropped by nearly 20%—its lowest in three decades—but early releases slowed to fewer than 450 in November. By December, infections inside the state’s prisons exploded to the highest number of cases to date, Capital Public Radio reported. Nine prisons that have been hit hardest by the virus are at least 120% over capacity.