Prisons and Jails Respond to COVID-19 Popular Press Summary

1. Jenkins, J. (2020, March 23). Prisons And Jails Change Policies To Address Coronavirus Threat Behind Bars. NPR.
2. Benner, K. (2020, April 3). Barr Expands Early Release Of Inmates At Prisons Seeing More Coronavirus Cases. New York Times.
3. Hager, E. (2020, March 28). How Bill Barr's Covid-19 Prisoner Release Plan Could Favor White People. Marshall Project.
4. Hill, J., Barr, L. (2020, April 4). No COVID-19 Tests Available for Prisoners at Center of New York City Outbreak, Court Documents Show. abc News.
5. Prison Policy Initiative. (2020, May 5). Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prison Policy Initiative.

Review written by:

Dhruvi Chauhan, edited by Jingwen Zhang


In prisons and jails across the U.S., lack of access to medical care, cramped quarters, and the high prevalence of underlying health conditions among inmates have increased the spreading of COVID-19 among the incarcerated. Inmates, who typically earn wages of less than $1 per hour,  pay copays of around $2-5 for medical visits and are often responsible for purchasing their own basic hygiene products, like soap. Many prisons also lack sufficient testing. In New York, the Metropolitan Detention Center of Brooklyn holds more than 500 inmates with conditions that put them at increased risk of severe illness. Inmates have been told that the facility is not capable of COVID-19 testing. While adequate social distancing may be impossible in prison, inmates became vulnerable the potential outbreak may overwhelm surrounding hospitals.

In order to mitigate these threats, some localities have enacted policy changes over the past weeks to reduce populations in prisons. In March, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reduced its incarcerated population by 10%. As of March 24, about 200 prisoners have been released from Rikers Island in New York City.

Attorney General William Barr announced on April 3 that the Bureau of Prisons would expand their early release plan. However, this plan would potentially favor those who are incarcerated for white-collar crimes, who are disproportionately white. Meanwhile, those incarcerated for drug-related offenses, who are disproportionately people of color, remain in prisons.

The federal response has not resulted in quick or significant reductions in prison populations. The Attorney General’s most recent plan restricts inmates to their cells in order to limit inmate movement within the facilities. Prison populations remain large, vulnerable, and limited in their access to healthcare and COVID-19 testing.

Review Notes


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