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February 10, 2022

Prison Policy Initiative provides latest update on incarceration populations two years into the COVID pandemic

The folks at the Prison Policy Initiative always impress me with cutting-edge research and analysis in the form of "Briefings," and the latest report here provides a particularly interesting account what we know about prison and jail populations in the US two years into the pandemic.  The full briefing should be read in full, and the full title provide a bit of a summary of the themes: "State prisons and local jails appear indifferent to COVID outbreaks, refuse to depopulate dangerous facilities; While some prison systems and local jails have maintained historically low populations, others have returned to pre-pandemic levels, despite the ongoing dangers of COVID-19 and new, more transmissible variants."

I cannot readily summarize all the insights and data covered in this new PPI report, but here are excerpts (with links from the original):

In state and federal prisons, over 2,900 people have died of COVID-19, almost 476,000 people have been infected, and thousands of additional cases are linked to individual county jails. Even now, when more than 75% of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine, correctional staff are hesitant to get vaccinated or receive boosters, and prison systems are slow to roll out boosters to incarcerated people.  As the more contagious Omicron variant ravages parts of the nation and renders hospitals completely overrun, nearly three quarters of prisons are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks; public health officials continue to recommend reducing prison populations as a primary method of risk reduction.  In fact, in October 2021, the American Public Health Association adopted a policy in support of decarceration as a public health matter and new research shows the detrimental effect of COVID-19 on all-cause mortality in state prisons.  Despite the clear need for smaller confined populations, the data show that with just a few exceptions, state and local authorities are allowing their prison and jail populations to return to dangerous, pre-pandemic levels.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, state governments and departments of corrections, and local justice system officials have a responsibility to protect the health and lives of those who are incarcerated. After almost two years of outbreak after outbreak in prisons and jails, correctional authorities must be held accountable for their repeated failure to reduce populations enough to prevent the illness and death of those who are incarcerated and in surrounding communities.


Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and the increased health care needs of incarcerated people. For example, although California has reduced the state prison population by about 18% since the start of the pandemic, it has not been enough to prevent large COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prisons, and the prison system has witnessed a 300% increase in infections among incarcerated people over the past few weeks and a 212% increase in cases among staff.  In fact, as of December 15th, 2021, California’s prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 113% of their design capacity (and up from 103% in January 2021).  Considering the continued overcrowding in the California prison system, it’s not surprising that the state is responsible for eight out of the ten largest COVID-19 prison clusters....

Many states’ prison populations are the lowest they’ve been in decades, but this is not because more people are being released from prisons; in fact, fewer people are. Data from 2020, recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows that prisons nationwide released 10% fewer people in 2020 than in 2019. Instead, data suggest most of the population drops we’ve seen over the past 20 months are due to reduced prison admissions, not increasing releases....


Jail populations, like prison populations, are lower now than they were pre-pandemic. Initially, many local officials — including sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges — responded quickly to COVID-19 and reduced their jail populations. In a national sample of 415 county jails of varying sizes, almost all (98%) decreased their populations from March to May of 2020, resulting in an average change of a 33% population decrease across all 415 jails at the start of COVID-19. These population reductions came as the result of various policy changes, including police issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts reducing cash bail amounts, and jail administrators releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent” offenses.

But those early-pandemic, common-sense policy changes didn’t last long. Between May 2020 and February 2021, the populations of 83% of the jails in our sample increased, reversing course from the earlier months of the pandemic. As of December 2021, 28% of the jails in our sample have higher populations now than they did in March 2020.  Overall, the average population change across these 415 jails from March 2020 to December 2021 has diminished to only a 10% decrease, while the average population change from July 2021 to December 2021 has dropped to 0%, suggesting that the early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned.

February 10, 2022 at 12:19 PM | Permalink


Vaccines work, and it's a disgrace that every prisoner or long-term jail inmate has not been offered vaccination (including a booster).

But most of the stuff about deincarceration sounds like using COVID as a rationalization for a policy the authors supported anyway. I happen to support much of their preferred policy, but the risk of serious adverse outcomes to the vast majority of boosted individuals is pretty minimal.

Posted by: Jason | Feb 11, 2022 11:28:09 AM

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