COVID Mitigation Efforts in State Prisons Called ‘Shameful Failure’

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Rally outside Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center. Photo by Joe Piette via Flickr

The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) assigned grades to state prison systems that designated their effectiveness in mitigating COVID-19. The results indicate that no state received higher than a “C” — a disturbing conclusion that reflects the unsanitary conditions and tightly packed quarters which allowed the virus to take hold in corrections facilities.

PPI evaluated departments of corrections on four criteria spanning the pandemic’s early months to July 2021. Grades were determined by state and prison officials’ efforts to limit the number of people in prisons, reduce infections and death rates behind bars, vaccinate the incarcerated population and address basic physical and mental health needs.

For its success in vaccinating 89 percent of incarcerated people in the state, New Jersey scored a “C” grade. The state also reduced prison populations by 42 percent, thanks to a large-scale release that allowed over 2,000 people to leave prison and return home.

California received a “C-” for widespread vaccination efforts, as well as the steps state officials took to provide some free phone calls, free video calls and free hygiene products to incarcerated people. But infection rates in New Jersey and California prisons remained high: in New Jersey, for instance, the COVID-19 mortality rate in prisons was almost double that of the statewide COVID-19 mortality rate.

“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,” write PPI’s Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma. Even New Jersey and California, which scored higher than the other 49 prison systems, did not do enough to mitigate COVID-19.”

Although no state met or exceeded standards set for all four criteria, some performed well on certain measures. Missouri and Wisconsin conducted mass testing, leading to higher reported infection rates and lower reported mortality rates. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Montana all received full points for adopting a wide range of easy policy changes to address basic health needs.

Still, those efforts weren’t enough to significantly alter the scores of most states. For instance, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama had low reported infection rates —  a fact potentially attributable to abysmal testing practices leading to potential undercounting.

“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,” Herring and Sharma write.

According to PPI, COVID-19 has claimed more than 2,700 lives behind bars and infected 1 out of every 3 people in prison.

As the pandemic continues, PPI argues that publishing publicly available data on cases, testing, vaccines and deaths is critical, since it allows the public to see that departments of corrections are tracking the virus.

Publishing data also allows families of incarcerated people to track conditions in prisons, since the pandemic largely suspended visitation. The vast majority of states are still failing to release comprehensive data.

Prisons should develop emergency response plans and commit to reducing prison populations long after the pandemic ends, the researchers said.

Prison overcrowding has been linked to problems like increased violence, lack of adequate health care, limited programming and educational opportunities, and reduced visitation,” the report reads.

“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.’”

The PPI report can be downloaded here.

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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