The Pandemic in Prisons

Tens of thousands of people in the prison system have tested positive for Covid-19 — all while prison officials continue to under-test and fail to take measures to ease crowded conditions. American Oversight is investigating how federal and state prison systems have responded to the pandemic.
Prision Cells at Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho

More than 2 million Americans are in prison, where crowded conditions and limited access to health care put them at high risk of contracting an illness. But as the coronavirus pandemic spread, prison officials limited testing and kept incarcerated people tightly packed. As a result, Covid-19 outbreaks have occurred in prisons in every single state and incarcerated people are infected at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate. According to the Marshall Project, as of mid-October, more than 150,000 incarcerated people and staff had tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 1,200 had died.

Months into the pandemic, many state prison systems still had not implemented proper coronavirus prevention measures. Though almost all states attempted to distribute masks to incarcerated people and correctional officers, by mid-August only half of them had required mask-wearing. States have also conducted extremely limited testing. According to the New York Times, in June, California had tested fewer than 7 percent of people in its prisons, while New York had tested only around 3 percent. Illinois, Mississippi, and Alabama had tested fewer than 2.5 percent of people. 

Many prison officials also refused to take necessary measures that would have mitigated overcrowding and decreased the spread of Covid-19. NBC News and the Marshall Project reported that in the first three months of the pandemic, wardens approved only 156 of the 10,940 applications of federal prisoners for compassionate release. Fulfilling these requests would have had the twin benefits of decreasing overcrowding and protecting medically vulnerable persons. 

In some instances, officials knowingly exposed incarcerated people to the virus. At a Bureau of Prisons facility in Indiana, a staff member who had tested positive for Covid-19 in July continued to have extensive contact with staff and prisoners without wearing a mask. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, by Sept. 18, there were more than 200 cases, though the ACLU said this was likely an undercount given that the BOP had tested less than a third of the incarcerated population. At Cummins Unit, a penitentiary in Arkansas, officials covered up coronavirus cases among staff and inmates for weeks during the early days of the pandemic, until widespread testing in late April revealed that more than 800 incarcerated people had contracted Covid-19. 

Incarcerated people have also continued working as the virus spread. At Cummins Unit, officials kept prison farms and garment shops open even though staff and workers were getting sick. The Los Angeles Times reported in October that in California, thousands of incarcerated people — many housed in different units, and some having been exposed to the virus — continued cleaning, cooking, and making products like masks and hand sanitizers in factories as the pandemic raged on. Thousands of people across the California prison system have been infected.

Travel in and out of prisons, including the transfer of prisoners, also enabled the spread of the coronavirus. As devastating wildfires rolled across the Northwest, prison transfers in Oregon heightened the risk of Covid-19 infections when incarcerated people were transferred to facilities with high rates of infection. Reporting revealed that few protections were in place to keep people in safe and hygienic conditions, and some of the transported people tested positive for coronavirus soon after.

American Oversight is investigating the realities of the pandemic for those behind bars. We’ve filed requests with the Department of Homeland Security and the BOP seeking any risk assessments related to the coronavirus as well as coronavirus-related communications with contractors. We’ve also requested records from state governments in New York, Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, and Texas about the coronavirus in correctional facilities, including statistics about cases and deaths.  

Related Documents

September 15, 2020

FOIA to BOP Seeking Risk Assessments Regarding Placing Federal Prisoners in Home Confinement

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons
FOIA Request
August 11, 2020

No Records Response from BOP Regarding Impact of “Riot Control” on Coronavirus Spread

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons
Agency Record
July 23, 2020

ORR to New York DOCCS Seeking Directives to Correctional Facilities Related to Coronavirus Outbreak

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to New York DOCCS Seeking Assessments of Risk to Correctional Facilities Related to the Coronavirus Outbreak

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to New York DOCCS Seeking Records of Coronavirus Testing and Coronavirus-Related Fatalities

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to the N.Y. Office of the Governor for Directives to Correctional Facilities Related to the Coronavirus Outbreak

New York Office of the Governor
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to the N.Y. Office of the Governor for Directives to Correctional Facilities Related to Covid-19 Outbreak

New York Office of the Governor
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to the N.Y. Office of the Governor Seeking Directives to Correctional Facilities Related to Coronavirus Outbreak

New York Office of the Governor
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to N.Y. Office of the Governor for Assessments of Risk to Correctional Facilities Related to Covid-19 Outbreak

New York Office of the Governor
FOIA Request
July 16, 2020

No Records Response from BOP Regarding Communications About Vaccines or treatments for Covid-19

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons
Agency Reply
July 16, 2020

No Records Response from BOP Regarding Communications About Vaccines or Treatments for Covid-19

Department of Justice
Agency Reply
June 18, 2020

Public Records Request to Ohio ODRC Seeking Emails with Private Contractors Regarding Coronavirus

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Public Records Request to Ohio ODRC Seeking Emails With Wardens Relating to Coronavirus Response

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Public Records Request to Ohio ODRC Seeking Emails With Local Officials Relating to Coronavirus Response

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Public Records Request to Ohio ODRC Seeking Coronavirus Testing and Fatality Data

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Public Records Request to Ohio ODRC Seeking Coronavirus Assessments

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Records Request to Texas Department of Criminal Justice for Emails with Private Contractors Regarding Coronavirus

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Records Request to Texas Department of Criminal Justice Seeking Emails with Wardens Regarding Coronavirus

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
FOIA Request
June 18, 2020

Records Request to Texas Department of Criminal Justice Seeking Coronavirus Guidance and Assessments

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
FOIA Request
June 11, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Assessments on Coronavirus Risk Posed by Use of Tear Gas and Mass Arrests

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - Transportation Security Administration, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DHS - United States Secret Service, DOD - National Guard Bureau, DOI - National Park Service, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, DOJ - Office of Information Policy, DOJ - U.S. Marshals Service
FOIA Request
June 2, 2020

Cobb County, Georgia, Jail Contracts Regarding Global Tel Link

Georgia - Cobb County
Agency Record
May 28, 2020

Rejection from the Georgia Department of Corrections for Records Related to Coronavirus Testing and Fatalities

Georgia Department of Corrections
Agency Reply
May 21, 2020

Complaint: American Oversight v. DHS, ICE, DOJ, and BOP — Coronavirus Outbreak in Prisons

Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons
Litigation
May 14, 2020

Rejection from Fla. DOC Regarding Coronavirus Testing and Fatality Data

Florida Department of Corrections
Agency Reply
May 13, 2020

Open Records Request to the Georgia Department of Corrections for Communications with Contractors Relating to Coronavirus

Georgia Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
May 13, 2020

Open Records Request to the Georgia Department of Corrections for Communications with Prisons Relating to Coronavirus

Georgia Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
May 13, 2020

Open Records Request to the Georgia Department of Corrections for Interdepartmental Communications Relating to Coronavirus

Georgia Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
May 13, 2020

Open Records Request to the Georgia Department of Corrections Seeking Records Relating to Coronavirus Testing and Fatalities

Georgia Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
May 13, 2020

Open Records Request to the Georgia Department of Corrections for Records Relating to Coronavirus Risk Assessments

Georgia Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
May 13, 2020

Open Records Request to the Georgia Department of Corrections Seeking Records Relating to a March 5, 2020 Board of Corrections Meeting

Georgia Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
May 12, 2020

Open Records Request to Gwinnett County, Georgia, for Records Relating to Phone Charges in Jails

Georgia - Gwinnett County
FOIA Request
May 12, 2020

Open Records Request to Cobb County, Georgia, for Records Relating to Phone Charges in Jails

Georgia - Cobb County
FOIA Request
May 6, 2020

Cook County, Illinois, Records Regarding Sheriff’s Office Coronavirus Assessments

Illinois - Cook County
Agency Record
May 5, 2020

Cook County, Illinois, Records Concerning the Coronavirus Response

Illinois - Cook County
Agency Record
May 5, 2020

Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office Covid-19 Data

Illinois - Cook County
Agency Record
April 29, 2020

Public Records Request to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for Communications with Contractors

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
FOIA Request
April 29, 2020

Public Records Request to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for Communications with State Penitentiary

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
FOIA Request
April 29, 2020

Public Records Request to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for Records Relating to Coronavirus

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
FOIA Request
April 29, 2020

Public Records Request to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for Coronavirus Risk Assessments

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
FOIA Request
April 28, 2020

Public Records Request to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office Seeking Email Communications With Officials and Outside Entities Regarding Coronavirus

New Orleans
FOIA Request
April 22, 2020

Public Records Request to Florida DMS Seeking Emails with Private Prison Contractors Regarding Coronavirus

Florida Department of Management Services
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office Seeking Records Relating to Coronavirus Response

Illinois - Cook County
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to Florida DOC Seeking Emails with Governor’s Office and Others Regarding Coronavirus

Florida Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to Florida DOC Seeking Emails with Private Contractors Regarding Coronavirus

Florida Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to Florida DOC Seeking Coronavirus Testing and Fatality Data

Florida Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to Florida DOC Seeking Coronavirus Guidance and Assessments

Florida Department of Corrections
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office for Emails Containing Terms Relating to Coronavirus

Illinois - Cook County
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office Seeking Emails Relating to Coronavirus Response

Illinois - Cook County
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office for Coronavirus Data

Illinois - Cook County
FOIA Request
April 21, 2020

Public Records Request to the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office Seeking Coronavirus Assessments

Illinois - Cook County
FOIA Request
April 17, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Regarding Directives about Prescriptions for Coronavirus

Department of Justice, Department of Veterans Affairs, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, VA - Veterans Health Administration
FOIA Request
April 17, 2020

FOIA to BOP Seeking Communications with Individuals Regarding Vaccines or Treatments for Coronavirus

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons
FOIA Request
March 20, 2020

Request to BOP Seeking Communications with Contractors Regarding the Coronavirus

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons
FOIA Request
March 19, 2020

Request to Multiple Agencies for Data on the Coronavirus

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
FOIA Request
March 19, 2020

Request to Multiple Agencies Seeking Risk Assessments Regarding the Coronavirus

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
FOIA Request
March 19, 2020

Request to Multiple Agencies Seeking Directives Regarding the Coronavirus

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, HHS - Administration for Children and Families
FOIA Request