By Kacie Fountain

As of December 18, 2020, “one in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States ha[d] tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population.” The sheer scale of this number, in one of the most incarcerated nations in the world, is singularly shocking. However, the impact of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is not limited to health risks and illness, despite the egregious nature of those harms. In 2020, COVID-19 affected every aspect of inmates’ lives, from their due process rights, to visitation with their loved ones, to their potential for recidivism. Below, I’ve compiled all of the multi-faceted issues that incarcerated people faced as a result of COVID-19.

The Dangers of COVID-19 in Prisons and Jails and Decarceration

Egregious COVID-19 rates in prisons and jails could have been reduced with early intervention. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists, families, and inmates themselves called for decarceration — the practice of decreasing prison populations — as a way to protect inmates and communities from the wildfire-like spread of COVID-19. Some jurisdictions engaged with the concept of decarceration, simultaneously arresting fewer people and judiciously releasing some inmates early to decrease their prison populations. Others, like Arizona, have only attempted to reduce arrest rates and have adamantly opposed early releases. Concerningly, 82% of jails increased their inmate populations between May and September of 2020, indicating a backslide in decarceration efforts.

In addition to failing to reduce inmate populations through decarceration efforts, many jails and prisons have failed to ensure adequate social distancing, protective equipment, and cleaning supplies. In California, a case was filed alleging that the Orange County Jail had not implemented adequate protective measures. This case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in August 2020, where the Court stayed the injunction that required the jail to implement protective measures, over the protest of Justices Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent highlighted the inmates’ declarations of poor and unsanitary conditions, stating that the jail “misrepresented under oath to the District Court the measures it was taking to combat the virus’ spread.”

Limited Visitation

Social contact with family and friends can be one of the only lifelines inmates have to normalcy and outside connection. In fact, prison visitation has been shown to “reduc[e] the rate of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations.” COVID-19 dramatically changed visitation procedures across the country, with different jails and prisons enacting a patchwork of rules. Indeed, experts are concerned that a lack of visitations, exacerbated by other COVID-19 extenuating circumstances, will lead to increased rates of self-harm and suicide in prisons and jails.

Although federal inmates are now permitted in-person visits, while those visits were temporarily suspended inmates were allowed increased free phone minutes. Jail phone calls are often monitored, however, which could lead to the heightened possibility that an inmate’s conversations could be utilized against him or her in court. While many jails were already moving away from contact visits that weren’t directly monitored, COVID-19 had dramatically increased reliance on calls that are recorded.

Other facilities, like those administered by the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry (AZDOCRR), have suspended in-person visitation to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In keeping with national trends for COVID-19 rates in prisons and jails, 31 inmates in AZDOCRR have died from COVID-19 and 25.93% of the prison population has tested positive for COVID-19, creating an understandable concern about community spread from visitation. Also in Arizona, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has similarly suspended in-person visitation, instead providing 1 free “on-site” or “remote” video visit a week.

Extended Case Times

COVID-19 is delaying, disrupting, and disorienting the very courtrooms that inmates’ cases move through. 2020 saw courtroom shutdowns, highly limited or suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings, and emergency operating procedures. Inmates who tested positive or were exposed to COVID-19 were not transported to court for hearings that they may have waited months to attend. COVID-19 has ultimately delayed cases ­­– preventing resolution on matters that are going to trial, increasing caseloads for attorneys of all stripes, and raising legal concerns about due process, including delays in grand jury proceedings and difficulties faced by defense counsel in scheduling meetings with clients in-person.

Inmate Labor

While production slowed in many areas of the U.S. economy during 2020, inmates continued to work – fighting dangerous California wildfires for $1 an hour, bottling and labeling hand sanitizer in New York for between $0.16 and $0.65 an hour, working at labor camps allegedly without air conditioning to ensure “stable suppl[ies] of eggs” in Arizona, and moving the bodies of those killed by COVID-19 in El Paso for $2 an hour.

While firefighting, working on the Arizona egg farm, and moving bodies in the morgue were voluntary jobs, inmates wishing to parlay these skills into jobs outside of prison faced extreme barriers to entry despite volunteering for life-threatening and socially critical roles while incarcerated. Recently, however, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that expunges the records of formerly incarcerated firefighters, allowing them to apply for EMT certification.

COVID-19 Vaccination and Incarceration

People who are currently incarcerated are being denied the same protections given to others living in similar settings, such as access to vaccines, because of their alleged criminal history. Although congregate communities like nursing homes, prisons, and jails are noted for their particular propensity to spread COVID-19 dangerously and rapidly, as of January 5, 2021 there are no federal guidelines on when the COVID-19 vaccine should be administered to inmates.

It is important to note that federal recommendations are just that – recommendations. Governors and local officials will ultimately decide the order of vaccination for their states. This will directly affect inmates in state prisons and local jails whose access to the vaccine may be dependent on such biased considerations as the political optics of vaccinating inmates before the general population. Evidence shows that states’ prioritization of inmates varies widely. Additionally, while federal prisons will “be among the first to receive the coronavirus vaccine,” the Associated Press reports that vaccines will be administered to prison staff, not inmates. In Arizona, corrections officers and inmates that are high risk for COVID-19 will be vaccinated in 1B. Remaining inmates will be vaccinated in Phase 1C as “adults living in congregate settings.”

However, even when inmates are offered a COVID-19 vaccine, the lack of trust between inmates and the state may reduce inmates’ willingness to receive the vaccine. While public trust in the COVID-19 vaccine has increased recently, groups that have historically experienced medical racism, exploitation, and experimentation, such as Black Americans, have indicated a lower inclination to receive the vaccination. This valid distrust may also impact inmates, both because of racial disparities in incarceration and historic and contemporary medical experimentation on incarcerated persons. To see a meaningful decrease in COVID-19 risk in incarcerated populations, public health officials and community leaders will have to reach out to incarcerated populations and build trust to effectively administer a herd-immunity producing level of vaccination in prisons and jails.


While 2020 brought heightened awareness about the inequalities of the criminal justice system and policy wins in the arena of criminal justice reform, those changes didn’t necessarily translate to real-time improvements in the lives of currently incarcerated persons. Instead, COVID-19 dramatically exacerbated existing inequalities that will likely create collateral impacts over the next several years. In the desire to rush back to “normalcy” that will likely occur in 2021, prison activists, family members, and communities must remember to continue publicizing and fighting for the safety of incarcerated persons.