Story at a glance

  • Jails and prisons are becoming hotbeds for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
  • The Marshall Project is collecting data on COVID-19's spread from prison systems in all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • New York City released 900 inmates in response to the coronavirus pandemic in March.

Eight out of 10 of the biggest outbreaks in the nation are now in jails or prisons, according to The New York Times, with the largest in Ohio, where 2,197 people at Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive for the virus. 

Using data from prison systems in all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons, the Marshall Project has tracked 9,437 cases of COVID-19 in prisons, as of April 24, although they say the number is likely higher. 


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“With the pandemic intensifying in prisons and jails across the country at alarming rates, urgent action is needed to stop the preventable spread of coronavirus,” said Robert Rooks, CEO of Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ). “It is essential to the health of communities throughout the U.S. that we safely reduce incarceration in these facilities that have proven to be fuel for the spread of illness. If action is not taken to release people who are at greatest risk, pose no risk to public safety, or can be better served elsewhere, needless deaths will occur inside correctional facilities and their surrounding communities.”

More than two-thirds of these cases were newly diagnosed in the week of April 22, showing that the outbreaks are spreading rapidly. At the same time, the Marshall Project says 16 prison systems are not releasing information about how many prisoners they are testing, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Only eight of the systems that have released testing information have tested more than 400 of the people in their custody. 


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By the end of March, New York City released 900 inmates, primarily nonviolent offenders, to avoid the risk of coronavirus spreading in the city's jails. The ASJ is calling on more localities to reduce the number of people incarcerated in their jails and prisons. 

Advocates are calling for the release of high-risk inmates, including the elderly and those with medical conditions, as well as those who are slated to be released soon or can safely serve out the rest of their sentences outside of prison. At the same time, the ASJ says courts and law enforcement officials should seek to keep people out of jail, using alternatives to incarceration when possible. 

“As crime victims from communities most harmed by violence, we want solutions that stop the cycle of crime and support our needs. We support safely reducing incarceration because a greater priority needs to be placed on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and trauma recovery,” said Aswad Thomas, managing director for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), in a release. “Over-incarceration has failed to make us safer and diverted critical investments that could promote healthy communities. Instead, wasteful prison spending monopolized attention and resources, while survivors needs went unmet, safety was undermined, and now everyone is endangered by prisons spreading COVID-19.”


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Published on Apr 28, 2020