Civil Liberties

COVID-19 Pulls Back the Mask on America's Prison System 

This deadly and contagious disease has exposed problems with prison systems that have been ignored for decades.


As of May 30, more than 300 incarcerated people across the United States have died from COVID-19. Victims of the virus include a woman who was sent to federal prison during her third trimester of pregnancy, a Michigan man who was two weeks away from release, and a wheelchair-bound 67-year-old man with no legs who died in a hospital two days after his release date. None of these prisoners were sentenced to death.

When the pandemic first hit, an unusual alliance of civil liberties groups, public defenders, and prison guard unions warned that prisons and jails were ill-equipped to handle the problem. They knew better than anyone that a deadly and contagious disease would expose problems with prison systems that have been ignored for decades.

U.S. prisons and jails are opaque, crowded, filthy institutions where the preferred administrative pace is glacial. They have been finely tuned over the past 50 years to resist outside oversight and sudden change.

As the virus began to spread domestically, many jurisdictions took unprecedented steps to reduce their incarcerated populations, such as halting intake of new inmates and releasing people who had been held in jail for minor offenses. Still, these efforts barely put a dent in the total number of incarcerated people. A May report from the Vera Institute, a nonprofit focused on justice reform, found that federal, state, and local prison populations had decreased by only 1.6 percent in the first few months of 2020 and that the incarcerated populations in five states had actually increased. "Data from 44 states and the Bureau of Prisons show that none had moved with the urgency required to meet the recommendations of public health officials to reduce incarceration," the report concluded.

Criminal justice advocates and families of inmates say the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) only halfheartedly complied with a March directive from Attorney General William Barr to grant compassionate release and home confinement to elderly and at-risk inmates. There was confusion surrounding which federal inmates were eligible. Federal prisons across the country told inmates they were going home and put them in pre-release quarantine, only to later tell them they no longer qualified.

By late April, eight of the top 10 biggest clusters of COVID-19 cases in the country were in prisons or jails. In the first week of May, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom, reported that more than 20,000 inmates across the country had been infected and 304 had died.

Individual inmates and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union filed a flurry of lawsuits seeking immediate relief. In May, a U.S. District Court judge ordered officials at FCI Danbury, a federal prison in Connecticut, to drastically speed up their process for identifying and releasing at-risk inmates. Noting that the Danbury warden hadn't approved a single one of the 241 inmate petitions for compassionate release following Barr's memo, the judge found that these delays and failures amounted "to deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment." Another federal judge ordered the BOP to relocate elderly inmates at an Ohio federal prison riddled with infections.

But many state and federal courts have resisted lawsuits' sweeping demands for large-scale transfers or releases. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against inmates at a geriatric prison in Texas, who had filed a lawsuit claiming the unsanitary, crowded conditions and lack of hand sanitizer violated their constitutional rights. The high court ruled that the inmates hadn't exhausted their "administrative remedies" under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which requires inmates to go through prisons' lengthy and confusingly complex grievance processes before they can file a lawsuit.

"It has long been said that a society's worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a statement accompanying the Court's order. "That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm. May we hope that our country's facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales."

Hope is nice, but it's no substitute for oversight. In April, several inmates at the Miami-Dade County Jail filed a lawsuit challenging that facility's unsanitary conditions. One of the plaintiffs, Anthony Swain, has been incarcerated for four years while awaiting trial because he can't afford bail. In mid-May, Swain, who is paraplegic, tested positive for COVID-19.

NEXT: Brickbat: A Big Cover-Up

Civil Liberties Prisons Inmates Coronavirus

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34 responses to “COVID-19 Pulls Back the Mask on America's Prison System 

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  3. It’s such a shame this country has so many people behind bars. We should release them so they can work for our benefactor Charles Koch.


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  4. Let them out. What could possibly go wrong.

    Although the Post has edited this story to remove the information that young Mr. Mason was let out of juvie due to the coronavirus scare.

    1. Sex offenders and murderers are being released from prisons due to the coronavirus, enabling some of them to commit new crimes. As ABC News reported:

      “A high-risk registered sex offender was arrested Thursday for allegedly exposing himself . . . just two weeks after a controversial early release from the Orange County Jail. Seven inmates who were deemed high-risk sex offenders were released early in April by a court commissioner, triggering criticism and warnings from county law enforcement officials who said the release was not necessary because the jails were not overcrowded.”

      In Massachusetts, “Two convicted murderers from the North Shore are among the more than 200 inmates released by the Massachusetts Department of Correction” under a state Supreme Court order citing the coronavirus pandemic. One of the murderers “stabbed” her victim “108 times over the course of several hours,” an extreme form of torture.

  5. Oh wait, I know! How about stop doing shit that would land you in prison?

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    2. Yes unfortunately on this site there is very little that the editorial staff thinks you should go to jail for… Murder, rape, assault, robbery hardly rise to level of worthiness according to the Koch brothers.. certainly selling drugs to children doesn’t. All kidding aside there are corrupt law enforcement officers and even agencies but as a society.. That said we do still need some sort law enforcement to help keep some sort of order or let us all shoot anyone we are threatened by with impunity ..

  6. Deadly?

    I know it’s pretty rough and does kill but is it deadly-deadly?

  7. There are public health risks associated with releasing inmates that need to be considered. As one TV station reported, recently released inmates are testing positive for COVID-19, even when when they were screened before release, and did not show any symptoms until after being released. This is raising “concerns” that the disease “could spread to the communities where people return upon release.”

    Such releases will also increase the crime rate. The National Bureau of Economic Research has a web page titled “Sentence Enhancements Reduce Crime.” It discusses how California’s Proposition 8 reduced crime by keeping “repeat offenders” off of the streets. According to the study cited, “Because convicted criminals were serving longer sentences, years after the law’s change they were still locked up, rather than out on the streets committing crime.” Murderers sometimes commit murder again after being released from prison, even those released from prison at an advanced age. Albert Flick is a classic example, killing a mother in front of her twins while in his late 70’s after being released from prison despite a prior murder and other crimes.

  8. They have been finely tuned over the past 50 years to resist outside oversight and sudden change.

    No wonder conservatives think they are perfect.

    1. “No wonder conservatives think they are perfect.”

      Do lefty shits ever post without a strawman-assist?

  9. One of the plaintiffs, Anthony Swain, has been incarcerated for four years while awaiting trial because he can’t afford bail. In mid-May, Swain, who is paraplegic…

    Release him and he’s going to make a run for it. Definite flight risk.

    1. He can apparently afford to keep asking for delays though.

  10. None of these prisoners were sentenced to death.

    None of ANY of the tens of thousands to die from COVID-19 were sentenced to death.

    What is your point?

    Are criminals special people that must be afforded greater care than anyone?

    Like many people, they caught C19 and died. It is awful. But there is no one to blame.

    1. Fortunately we don’t have the death penalty in New Jersey. Unless you count being in a nursing home.

      1. Hey-ooo! Jersey in the house!

    2. “None of these prisoners were sentenced to death.”

      Now do New York state nursing home resident Ciaramella.

  11. Californa locked down first, and had among the strictest of lockdown rules. Yet California is surging along with the “red” states. The numbers never flattened out, every week we had more cases than the week before. Every week. We never plateaued. The Left seems to think it’s because we weren’t locked down hard enough, that we didn’t worship the Newsome enough. They’re like socialists, “we just need to try it again, but harder”.

    My theory is the prisons. I wish I had the breakdown to see, but we have among the highest prison rate in the country. With Kamala Harris partly to blame for her propensity to lock up people just for being poor and Black. So everyone else in the state is isolated under a lockdown, but the prisons are over-crowded dense populations in close proximity and other factors.

  12. Are America’s private prisons any better than public prisons? Reason would presumably argue that our private prisons have an incentive to keep its prisoners alive and bringing in revenue. Though they also are incentivized to more intense crowding.

    1. Too many libertarians get caught up on private versus public. A private prison is still a prison. It might be run more efficiently than in the public sector, but it’s still a prison. Prisoners are not clients or customers, for a private prison the client is the government.

      The core problem is NOT who runs the prisons, the core problem is that there are people in prison who should not be there. The solution is not to play with the accounting, the solutions is to dump the laws that wrongly place and keep people in prison.

      1. “The core problem is NOT who runs the prisons”

        It isn’t the core problem, but clearly private prison has a financial interest in return customers (I mean the prisoners). Public prisons are usually measured by a recidivism rate, giving them opposite incentives to private prisons. I agree with you about scrapping harsh penalties.

        Some people need institutional support to get through their lives. Divert prison money to hospitals, schools, churches and the like.

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  15. The Senseless Murder of An Eight Year Old Pulls Back the Mask on Black Lives Matter.

  16. There are about 2 million sentenced people in US prisons and jails on any given day. There are 1.2 million violent offenders arrested each year. We do not have an incarceration problem. We have a violent crime problem. That’s why there are so many in prisons and jails.

    1. “We have a violent crime problem.”

      It may be hard to believe but there’s not too many neighborhood drug king pins that aren’t also violent criminals. You might say it goes with the territory. You won’t go far in that business without a readiness to employ violence.

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