1 In 5 Prisoners In The US Has Had COVID-19, 1,700 Have Died

One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population.

In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected.

As the pandemic enters its 10th month — and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine — at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected and more than 1,700 have died.


A State-by-State Look At Coronavirus In Prisons

By Nov. 17, at least 197,659 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, an 8 percent increase from the week before.

New infections the week of Nov. 17 reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic after rising sharply the week before. The new surges far outpaced the previous peak in early August.


COVID Tears Through State Prison In Anamosa

The coronavirus is tearing through Iowa’s prisons, infecting more than 3,400 incarcerated individuals and staff and killing 9: eight inmates and one employee. The Anamosa State Penitentiary is one of the hardest-hit institutions, where more than three-quarters of the incarcerated population have contracted COVID-19.

At the state prison in Anamosa, the thing that family members and advocates have been warning of for months has happened: the prison has become a sprawling, stone petri dish for the coronavirus.

As of Friday, more than 77% of the people incarcerated there had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a state tally. Many of them are considered recovered, but three have died. Additionally, 124 staff members there have also reported contracting the disease.


Compassionate Release

In compassionate release cases, judges have to decide if an inmate’s situation presents “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to reduce their prison sentence.

In some cases reviewed, judges found that an inmate’s medical conditions met the standard given the pandemic.

Judges are making medical assessments about how much of a threat COVID-19 poses to an individual inmate and then deciding how to balance that against the public safety risk of sending that person back into the community; inmates are usually released to home confinement or under the supervision of a probation officer.

And judges are reaching different conclusions about how to measure an inmate’s risk of exposure in state and federal prisons, which have seen some of the worst clusters of COVID-19 cases nationwide.



It’s all that I’d heard through all those years I was in prison before, those years of phone calls and visits. And before that, there were my rebellious teenage years spent skipping school, getting expelled, sneaking out late at night, shoplifting and stealing money.

Yet, even in prison, mom had been there for me. She was there to pick up every one of my calls. If I told her I was sick, she’d be there for visitation. But my latest crime landed me in the federal system, which distanced us more than we both could have known.

I know all too well the sound of a broken heart.


WOMEN IN PRISON: The Purgatory Of Being Invisible

Women are the less visible victims of COVID-19 behind bars.

They are so often overlooked in a criminal justice system that was not designed for them. Though only a small number have died—at least 13 reported as of Wednesday—their stories illuminate the unique problems women face in prison.

They also reflect the all-too-common ways they get there in the first place: drug addiction and violence involving the men in their lives.

The vast majority of women behind bars are mothers—by some estimates, as many as 80 percent. Many were raising kids on their own before getting locked up.

And measures to slow the virus, including eliminating prison visitation and restricting access to phones, have cut off communication to their children and families on the outside.


COVID-19 PARADIGM SHIFT: Cells to Hotels

Two hotels near the airport here are receiving unusual guests now that coronavirus has eviscerated tourism: homeless people being released from jail.

It’s part of an experiment to provide government-paid hotel rooms to homeless people, including those released from jail under emergency orders, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus both behind bars and in this state’s sprawling homeless encampments.

California and New York appear to be the first states trying it.

“We are doing things that we’ve never done before,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, the sheriff’s spokesman in Alameda County, which includes Oakland. “The reason for the decision is to save lives—there’s no doubt about that. We’re up against a clock.”

The pandemic has prompted law enforcement officials throughout the country to make difficult decisions to try to prevent outbreaks in crowded jails, where people often cycle in and out as they wait for trial or serve short stints.

Some agencies have released thousands of people early. But when people leave jails, where do they go?



In the grainy cell phone video, the prison block is dim and the shouting muffled—but the sight of wafting, gray smoke is unmistakable.

“It’s a nonviolent protest going on right now because the officers, in the middle of the coronavirus, have refused us electricity for several hours, no showers or anything,” a man says in the recording, apparently made last week.

The smoke, he explains, is from fires set by Texas prisoners desperately hoping to attract attention from higher-ups because they couldn’t turn on their cell fans or clean themselves during the pandemic.

The Marshall Project is not publishing the video or naming the prison out of concern for the man’s safety.

Afterward, a prison spokesman said he had no record of the incident or its resolution. But some worry this sort of unrest could escalate in lock-ups across the country, especially as restrictions tighten. The federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, announced Tuesday a 14-day lockdown at all its facilities to slow down the virus.

Prisoners and guards nationwide are fretting, and some say fears will skyrocket as more people inside begin testing positive.