COVID and Prisons

This piece was originally written in August 2020 by Jake Lindahl, 2020-21 Health Policy Ambassador


Schools across the country are struggling to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With small, poorly ventilated classrooms, high student/faculty ratios, and already overstretched budgets, the pressure is on localities to make these facilities safe. Many of the same problems have meanwhile been present in US prisons since the virus hit in March. “The number of US prison residents who tested positive for Covid-19 was 5.5 times higher than the general US population,” according to researchers at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. After decades of overcrowding and underfunding, and without many advocates to pressure from the outside, US prisons are likely the worst place to be during a deadly pandemic like COVID-19.

The United States has the highest prison population in the world with 2.12 million people incarcerated. This is down from last year, mostly due to early release for immunocompromised prisoners in some states. Prisons remain overcrowded and violent with little to no resources for mental health and widespread inadequate health and dental care. With these conditions, it is clear why COVID-19 has hit prisons so hard. There is no way to social distance in a prison. Every meal is communal. Guards and staff interact with the outside world, sometimes reintroducing the virus many times over months. US prisons are a massive petri dish for COVID-19.

Conditions are especially harsh in Alabama, where the state correctional system was exposed for breaking federal law by not providing adequate healthcare back in 2014. USA Today reported on March 9, 2020 that, “chaos, confusion and corruption” plagued the prison system despite the ongoing federal investigation. The 17th Alabama prisoner died on August 11th, and six new inmates have tested positive. This puts the total cases at 296, but the Alabama DOC admitted in July that it neglected to adequately test the prison population.