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COVID-19 in American Prisons

Assessing Institutional Responses to COVID-19 in American Prisons

New study outlines prison responses to the pandemic across 51 correctional jurisdictions

CLEVELAND (October 23, 2020) – The COVID-19 pandemic infiltrated the United States in early 2020, with prisons becoming hot spots for the novel coronavirus shortly thereafter. However, there has been little research systematically examining responses to the virus across American prisons, which collectively incarcerate more than 1.5 million adults.  

A new study, co-authored by researchers at Cleveland State University, Sam Houston State University and Rutgers University – Camden, assesses institutional responses to the pandemic across 51 correctional jurisdictions. The focus of the study is to outline strengths and deficiencies of prison responses to the pandemic that occurred through mid-June, with attention to pertinent variations across correctional jurisdictions. Results acknowledge efforts by correctional jurisdictions to quickly integrate COVID-19 dashboards on their websites to increase information sharing and to implement supplemental options for visits between incarcerated individuals and their loved ones following visitation freezes. However, results also raise concerns about lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE) within prisons, issues regarding data transparency and testing, and exploitive labor practices.

Several policy reforms are explored to help prisons mitigate public health harms associated with the pandemic, including mass testing in all prisons, mandates regarding adequate provision of PPE, and continued access to family communication options between incarcerated individuals and their families that are not cost-prohibitive.

“There is still a health crisis in our prisons and jails,” notes Dr. Meghan Novisky, assistant professor of criminology at CSU and lead-author on the study. “Without adequate protections in place in correctional facilities, public health efforts being implemented in the community risk being compromised.”

Novisky and her coauthors, Dr. Chelsey Narvey, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University, and Dr. Daniel Semenza, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University – Camden, gathered data from the government websites of all 50 U.S. State Departments of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to perform their analyses. The researchers tracked the first COVID-19 cases to enter each jurisdiction and noted that most often, staff diagnoses occurred first. 

“We must recognize that prisons are connected to our communities. Hundreds of thousands of correctional staff enter and exit these institutions daily and over 90 percent of people with incarceration sentences eventually return home. The large volume of people cycling in and out of prisons is especially concerning in the midst of a pandemic.”

Novisky, Narvey and Semenza argue that the longer-term physical and mental health impacts of being incarcerated during a pandemic warrant study. “We know that over 145,000 incarcerated people have been infected with COVID-19 thus far and over 1,200 have died. However, we lack information on how many incarcerated individuals have been hospitalized as a result of the virus and how many people have experienced upticks in mental health symptoms during the pandemic, for example,” Novisky says. 

About Cleveland State University

Founded in 1964, Cleveland State University is a public research institution that provides a dynamic setting for Engaged Learning. With 17,000-plus students, ten colleges and schools and more than 175 academic programs, CSU was again chosen for 2020 as one of America’s best universities by U.S. News & World Report. Find more information at