Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons

Document Date: June 25, 2020

When the pandemic struck, it was obvious what needed to be done: take all actions possible to “flatten the curve.” This was especially urgent in prisons and jails, which are crowded facilities where social distancing is impossible, sanitation is poor, and medical resources are extremely limited. Public health experts warned that the consequences of inaction or inadequate response were dire: prisons and jails would become petri dishes where, once inside, COVID-19 would spread rapidly, cause illness and death, and then boomerang back out to the surrounding communities with greater force than ever before.

Due to long-standing and systemic racial disparities in the criminal legal system, advocates knew it would disproportionately be poor people of color in prisons and jails whose lives were on the line. So when faced with this test, how did leading officials fare? In this report, the ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative evaluate each state’s actions to save incarcerated people and facility staff from COVID-19. The findings are startling. Despite clear information and calls for action, state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective to just callously nonexistent. The data in this report reveals that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response to protect and save lives.

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