NEW 50-STATE REPORT: Grading prison system responses to COVID-19
Prison Policy Initiative
Sep 1, 2021

States of emergency: The failure of prison system responses to COVID-19

by Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma

From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that densely packed prisons and jails — the result of decades of mass incarceration in the U.S. — presented dangerous conditions for the transmission of COVID-19. More than a year later, the virus has claimed more than 2,700 lives behind bars and infected 1 out of every 3 people in prison.

A year after we first graded state responses to COVID-19 in prisons, most state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons are still failing on even the simplest measures of mitigation.

In a new report, we evaluated departments of corrections on their responses to the pandemic from the beginning of the pandemic to July 2021. We looked at a range of efforts to:

·         Limit the number of people in prisons: States received points for reducing prison populations as well as for instituting policies that reduced admissions and facilitated earlier releases.

·         Reduce infection and death rates behind bars: We penalized prison systems where infection and mortality rates exceeded the statewide COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, because some key decisions were based on correctional agencies’ faulty logic that prisons were controlled environments and therefore better positioned to stop the spread of infection than communities outside prison walls.

·         Vaccinate the incarcerated population: States were rated higher for including incarcerated people in their vaccine rollout plans, as well as for higher vaccination rates among their prison populations.

·         Address basic health (and mental health) needs through easy policy changes: We credited states for waiving or substantially reducing charges for video and phone calls, or providing masks and hygiene products to incarcerated people. States also received points for suspending medical co-pays (which can discourage people from seeking treatment), requiring staff to wear masks, and implementing regular staff COVID-19 testing.

While some states performed well on one or two of these criteria, no state’s response to COVID-19 in prison has been sufficient. The highest letter grade awarded was a “C”, and most states completely failed to protect incarcerated people:

New Jersey was rated higher than any other prison system in the U.S. — scoring a “C” grade — largely for vaccinating 89% of incarcerated people in the state. Additionally, New Jersey reduced prison populations by 42%, in part due to a large-scale release that allowed over 2,000 people to leave prison and return home. Similarly, California received a comparatively high “C-” grade for widespread vaccination efforts, providing some free phone calls, free video calls, and free hygiene products to incarcerated people, as well as eliminating medical co-pays prior to COVID-19.

It’s telling that not one prison system in the U.S. scored higher than a C; as a whole, the nation’s response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure. Even New Jersey and California, which scored higher than the other 49 prison systems, did not do enough to mitigate COVID-19. In New Jersey, the infection rate (42%) in prisons was 3.8 times higher than the statewide COVID-19 infection rate (11%), and the COVID-19 mortality rate in prisons (0.48%) was almost double that of the statewide COVID-19 mortality rate (0.28%). Rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality in California were similarly high compared to the statewide rates, dropping the state’s scores. And while California reduced its prison populations by much more than other states (cutting it by 19%), it was still not enough to end the rampant prison overcrowding across the state, leaving thousands of incarcerated people vulnerable to infection. In June 2021, California state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 107% of their design capacity (and up from 103% in January 2021).

While all of the composite scores were dishearteningly low, some states performed well by certain measures:

·         After New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois reduced their prison populations most dramatically (dropping by 27% and 26%, respectively).

·         Some states that conducted mass testing, such as Missouri and Wisconsin, reported higher infection rates, but lower mortality rates. Other states like Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama had low reported infection rates, but that is potentially attributable to abysmal testing practices leading to potential undercounting.

·         North Dakota, New Jersey, and Oregon all scored exceptionally high for vaccinations, with rates above 85%.

·         California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and Montana all received full points for adopting a wide range of easy policy changes to address basic health needs. Only one state—Nevada—did not institute any changes to their medical copay policies, leaving incarcerated people to pay for health services.

We gave most states failing grades because they refused to address basic health (and mental health) needs for those trapped inside and they shied away from releasing large numbers of people who could have been safely returned home, all of which contributed to extremely dangerous conditions behind bars:

Visit the online version of the report to see how your state performed in each area we examined.



Publishing publicly available data on cases, testing, vaccines, and deaths allows the public to see that departments of corrections are tracking the virus, which is the first step to addressing the crisis behind bars. Without knowing the status of COVID-19 in their facilities, there is no way for prison systems to be addressing the crisis. Additionally, families rely on information from departments of correction about how their loved ones are faring. During the pandemic, with visitation suspended across the country, families are even morereliant on information from prison officials about the status of COVID-19 in particular facilities. Despite the critical nature of COVID-19 data, the vast majority of states are failing to release comprehensive data, and many are no longer updating the data dashboards on their websites. And two states — Arkansas and Rhode Island — were not willing to provide us with updated vaccination numbers for this report.

Since prisons barely protect the lives of incarcerated people during normal times, it’s no wonder they have not been able to manage an emergency. Many prisons do not have adequate emergency response plans, limiting their ability to swiftly enact meaningful changes that could save lives. It’s imperative that prisons develop detailed emergency response plans that address how they will handle various situations, from pandemics to natural disasters.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there have been some positive changes in policies and practices that should be preserved long after the pandemic. Many departments of corrections suspended medical co-pays during the pandemic, a policy which should be made permanent for the health of incarcerated people. States should also provide phone and video calls, as well as hygiene products, to incarcerated people free of charge for their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Most importantly, reducing prison populations should be a top priority for states after the pandemic is over. Changes in law and policy over the past 40+ years have resulted in the U.S. incarcerating people — particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people — at excessively high rates. Further, prison overcrowding has been linked to problems like increased violencelack of adequate health care, limited programming and educational opportunities, and reduced visitation. As states continue to address the pandemic, allowing prison populations to creep back up to their unjust, unsustainable prior levels should not be part of the return to “normalcy.”

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For more information, including our detailed methodology, scores for each state, footnotes, and additional visualizations, see the online version of this report.

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