Study: Prison COVID-19 Spread Led to Hundreds of Thousands of Community Infections

Thanks to poor management and massive rates of incarceration, people are dying both inside and outside prisons.


The poor management of COVID-19 risks in jails and prisons across the country has contributed significantly to the dramatic spread of the pandemic outside prison walls, producing as many as 500,000 cases in three months.

So says a newly released report by the Prison Policy Initiative, authored by Gregory Hooks, a sociology McMaster University, and Wendy Sawyer, research director for the initiative.

To be clear, those 500,000 cases aren't the prisoners. According to the Marshall Project, there have been more than 275,000 infections of prisoners across the country. That's about 20 percent of the prison population.

What the Prison Policy Initative's report attempts to show is the extent that these jail and prison outbreaks escape those facilities and infect surrounding communities. The report looks at the difference in infection rates in non-metro counties with high ratios of incarcerated populations (meaning, they have large jails or prisons there) to others. The study finds that the counties with the highest ratio of incarcerated citizens consistently saw the largest number of new infections per 100,000 people.

Marion County, Ohio, for example, has two state prisons and a jail that serves multiple counties. The Marion Correctional Institution saw a huge outbreak of infections in late April, with more than 2,000 inmates testing positive. At the time, that accounted for the vast majority of COVID-19 infections in the county.

The infections, of course, did not stop with the prisoners. More than 150 corrections staff were diagnosed positive by late April, and one staff member died from COVID-19. Hooks calculates that an additional 310 cases from May to August could be attributed to the spread from the prison. That may seem like a small number, but it accounts for 37 percent of all new infections in Marion County (population: 65,000) during that time.

The numbers don't stop there either. The paper goes on to calculate how high incarceration rates within a county affect nearby counties that are part of the same economic area. Nearby Ohio counties with major economic ties to Marion County also saw higher rates of infection that could be traced to incarceration rates.

The study shows an extremely strong correlation between incarceration rates and the spread of COVID-19. And yet, as the Associated Press notes, we're still seeing situations where prisoners aren't properly tested or treated for COVID-19.

And now, predictably, there's the question of where prisoners fall on state plans for vaccinations, if they're even included on priority lists at all. In Massachusetts, inmates will be given the highest of priorities. Other states rank them lower, but are still giving them preference.

But Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has talked about the vaccine priority list as though being selected is some sort of reward. "There's no way it's going to go to prisoners…before it goes to the people who haven't committed any crime," he told reporters.

That's a myopic, politically driven approach to the issue. Prisoners should be prioritized not on the basis of whether some people are more "deserving," but because some people are more vulnerable or at heightened risk of exposure. That includes many inmates, particularly the older ones. And the benefits will extend far beyond prison walls.

This post has been updated to correct the name of the Prison Policy Initiative.

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36 responses to “Study: Prison COVID-19 Spread Led to Hundreds of Thousands of Community Infections

  1. How can we reform violent felons if they die from COVID-19 before they are reformed?

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  2. Now do nursing homes.

    1. Meh. They vote Republican…

      1. Plus, they’re mostly white…

        1. Again, so what?

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  4. So, pretty conclusively, locking people in cages doesn’t prevent the spread of COVID.

    1. To be fair to the prisons, the cells were not socially distanced by more than 6 feet so it would be difficult to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mandatory masks in the cells might have helped. A better solution would be to let half the rapists, habitual marijuana smokers and murderers out early so that more than 6 feet would exist between individual prisoners.

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    2. It just proves we need to build better cages. Maybe we make them out of mask material?

      1. ^ Genius

  5. “Prison COVID-19”

    dont care

    1. Why won’t you have sympathy for the convicted felons? Some of them claim to be innocent of their crimes!

      1. Your answer is all right there in his name.

  6. Are we back to number of infections as our primary metrics?

  7. After letting Oregon burn all summer, Oregon capitol calls unlawful protest on Oregon Reopen protest before a single building burned.

  8. Damn somebody gave marching orders to talk about prisons today. It’s a weird fetish.

    1. The Libertarian Party has a lot of NAMbLA members in prison for victimless crimes.

  9. There not much else there except the prisons so pretty much everybody is connected to it in some way. Anyone here want to volunteer to work there?

    1. Anyone here want to volunteer to work there?

      I didn’t realize prisons were manned by volunteer staff. That’s pretty cool. How the fuck do they cost so much then?

      If you’re asking if I’d work for a paycheck some place where I might get exposed to a virus with a 1/10 of 1% fatality rate and 1% rate of hospitalization, the answer would be yes. Not everyone is cowering, quivering quim like like you are.

  10. “Has Restaurants’ Role in Spreading COVID-19 Been Exaggerated?”

    I don’t know if these claims are exaggerated, but some people are reporting that Trump is considering a military intervention to prevent Biden from taking office!!!

    1. He’s also hatching a plot to cut the tags off of all the mattresses in his properties.

      Some people report that you are a fool and I believe there might be some validity to that report.

  11. Stay at home stay safe and also follow the Coronavirus Disease (COVID 19) Guidelines according to WHO.

  12. Bringing back corporal punishment looking a little better now, right?

    What’s more humane? Giving someone a good flogging and sending them on their way…OR pack them into cages, far away from their families for long periods of time, where they will still get the shit beat out of them by prisoners and guards, AND raped, AND exposed to dangerous diseases.

    Which one is MORE cruel and unusual punishment?

    1. Reason couldn’t give a fuck about cruel and unusual punishment. They’re pro-criminal. Simple as. Not pro-accused. Pro-criminal. Pro-duly-convicted-in-a-court-of-law-of-vicious-violent-crime. They do not believe in prisons. They do not believe in punishment. They do not believe in law. There are hundreds of examples of this cunt rag of a magazine advocating for the release without punishment of convicted kiddie fuckers (boy do libertarians love them some kiddie fuckers), rapists, murderers, arsonists, etc. Not victimless crimes. Not the drug war. Knife-to-the-throat-sticking-your-cock-in-an-orifice-without-permission shit.

  13. If the low life was ostracized instead of caged there would have been essentially zero spread at no cost to the “taxpayer”.

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  14. this hoax virus is making tabloids top sources of BS. LOL

  15. Maybe jails and prisons could have done a better at stopping the spread. However, do not be fooled by those (like who want to release all prisoners due to “mass incarceration”. There are many incarcerated because many commit serious, heinous crimes. According to FBI data, there are more than 5 million victims of violent crime every year in the US. More than 5 million! That is the unfortunate reason we need jails and prisons. That is the reason why there are 2 million locked up. Mass violent crime equals terrible people thankfully going to prison.

  16. You make an excellent argument for giving prison workers the vaccine first.

    There is something of a natural experiment occurring in the California prisons. There are two facilities, Avenal and San Quentin that had big outbreaks early, so that around 70% of the inmates (there aren’t comparable stats for workers) got infected. Right now, as the rest of the system is reporting large COVID case numbers (there are about 10,000 active cases in California prisons at the moment), those two facilities are reporting fewer than 30 cases (verses hundreds for other facilities).

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