Here's where testing shows the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in US prisons
Social distancing is the best way to avoid spreading COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But in today’s prisons—designed in the late-18th century to mitigate the spread of disease and criminal behavior among prisoners—social distancing is virtually impossible except for those in solitary confinement. At any given time, nearly 2.3 million people are being held by the American criminal justice system. The facilities to house these individuals include 110 federal prisons and 1,833 state prisons. More than 55,000 people being held (often at local jails) have not been convicted or sentenced.
The U.S. has the highest prison rate in the world, with 698 people imprisoned for every 10,000 residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The Department of Justice in a 2020 report stated federal prison inmate populations are, on average, 12% to 19% higher than the prisons’ rated capacity. Overcrowding like this breeds higher contagion rates, increases the likelihood of insufficient medical care, and can spell a lack of access to personal hygiene products. When combined, it’s a perfect storm for the spread of a virus such as COVID-19.
As of June 1, there were more than 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff at U.S. jails and prisons and over 43,000 confirmed cases among residents at those facilities, according to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, spearheaded by Professor Sharon Dolovich. The project is monitoring cases and deaths of residents in prisons and jails, as well as local correctional departments’ responses to the pandemic, such as the release of prisoners. Stacker mined that data (updated as of June 1, 2020) to take a closer look at COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails across the country. In basic terms, jail refers to a place that holds individuals who are being temporarily held for minor offenses or awaiting trial; prisons hold those who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced.
Because inmate access to COVID-19 testing and reporting of these results vary wildly from state to state, actual numbers of cases and deaths are likely higher. While such widespread testing remains out of reach for many prison population and staff, prison factories have remained open. In Ohio, mass testing was stopped despite outbreaks of the virus among inmates and staff. Elsewhere, as testing rates increase so too do COVID-19 cases. Complicating matters is the fact that prisoners statistically have higher instances of pre-existing health conditions that put them at more risk for serious symptoms from COVID-19. There are also many people going in and out of prisons all the time—from corrections officers and food service workers to visitors and inmates themselves, increasing the likelihood of spreading contagions. The CDC’s prison guidelines only recommend tests for current inmates exhibiting symptoms.
Keep reading to see where outbreaks of COVID-19 have occurred, and how various states are dealing with these surges, whether by increasing testing, halting visitation, or releasing nonviolent or elderly offenders—as was the case with Paul Manafort’s early release to home confinement.
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- COVID-19 cases among residents: 12 (Death toll: 1)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 61 (Death toll: 3)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Tutwiler (12 cases among staff)
- Residents released from jails: 587 (out of 2,220 total residents)
Alabama is home to the most crowded prisons in the U.S., according to data analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics by The Appeal. It’s overcrowding—estimated to be at 167.8% of its rated capacity—was ruled by the Department of Justice in April 2019 to be in violation of the Constitution.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 2 (Death toll: 0)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 11 (Death toll: 0)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Lemon Creek CC (Juneau) (11 cases among staff)
Alaska has since Feb. 2 screened all inmates being booked at a Department of Corrections (DOC) facility for COVID-19. As of June 1, just two inmates had tested positive out of 513 who were tested. The DOC in April began checking the temperatures of all staff members arriving at correctional facilities and screening all inmates scheduled to be transferred. A cluster of positive COVID-19 cases among correction officers at the Juneau Correctional Facility was reported in mid-April.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 188 (Death toll: 7)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 88 (Death toll: 0)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Florence (71 cases among residents)
- Residents released from jails: 2,277 (out of 9,810 total residents)
County prosecutors in Maricopa County lowered jail populations there by 30%. They did so by not filing as many charges: down from 734 cases the first week of March to 107 the second-to-last week of April, according to reporting from the Arizona Republic.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 1,251 (Death toll: 5)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 30 (Death toll: 0) - Residents released from jails: 216 (out of 408 total residents)
- Residents released from prisons: 300 (out of 17,759 total residents)
In April, Lincoln County—a rural part of the state with only three incorporated towns—became one of the biggest hotspots for coronavirus cases in the country because of an outbreak at a state prison there called the Cummins Unit. About 40% of the prisoners there tested positive for COVID-19 by April 24. The Cummins Unit had updated its number of cases on June 2 to 1,1016. This spike is likely not unique to Arkansas, but rather due to aggressive testing at the state’s prisons.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 4,656 (Death toll: 10)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 625 (Death toll: 1)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Los Angeles Jails (1,951 cases among residents, 287 cases among staff)
- Residents released from jails: 9,696 (out of 28,144 total residents)
- Residents released from prisons: 3,418 (out of 114,000 total residents)
As of June 2, COVID-19 tests had been administered to 4.5% of residents in California’s prison system. Because of the limited testing scope, there is yet to be a clear portrait of how widespread COVID-19 is in the state’s prison system.
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- COVID-19 cases among residents: 600 (Death toll: 2)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 46 (Death toll: 0)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Sterling Correctional Facility (538 cases among residents)
- Residents released from jails: 1,060 (out of 3,700 total residents)
- Residents released from prisons: 3,552 (out of 20,000 total residents)
Criminal justice advocates including ACLU Colorado on May 8 sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis urging him to help reduce the likelihood of coronavirus spread among inmates by pushing for commutations and parole reforms that would help reduce the prison population in the state to single-cell occupancy. Sterling Correctional Facility, site of the state’s largest outbreak so far, is the biggest prison in Colorado.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 870 (Death toll: 7)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 380 (Death toll: 0)
The state of Connecticut intends to test all residents of jails, prisons, and psychiatric facilities for COVID-19 by the end of June. The aggressive measures, slated to begin the third week of May, come on the heels of rising case numbers among residents and staff at these facilities.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 148 (Death toll: 7)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 89 (Death toll: 0)
Following Gov. John Carney’s March 12 emergency stay-at-home order, arrests for misdemeanor and felony crimes throughout the state fell by almost half. As of June 2, Delaware remains one of just three states (along with Hawaii and Nevada) to have not yet waived medical co-pays for inmates at state prisons.
- COVID-19 cases among residents: 1,529 (Death toll: 12)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 265 (Death toll: 3)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Homestead CI (293 cases among residents, 25 cases among staff)
- Residents released from jails: 1,769 (out of 12,519 total residents)
- Residents released from prisons: 3 (out of 96,009 total residents)
To reduce overcrowding—and potential virus spread—the Department of Justice in April allowed “compassionate releases” that would allow inmates to go home amid the pandemic. Included in such an allowance was former Florida Rep. Corrine Brown, who was convicted in 2017 on federal charges of conspiracy and fraud.
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- COVID-19 cases among residents: 422 (Death toll: 17)
- COVID-19 cases among staff: 166 (Death toll: 1)
- Site of biggest outbreak: Autry State Prison (71 cases among residents, 10 cases among staff)
- Residents released from jails: 259 (out of 585 total residents)
The Georgia National Guard on May 11 began testing all inmates for COVID-19 at Lowndes County Jail as a precautionary measure. Testing was voluntary, however, anyone who refused a test was to be provided alternative housing arrangements to ensure the safety of fellow residents and staff.2018 All rights reserved.