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prisons, next epicenter of the epidemic in the united states?

April 27, 2020


by Gwenola Ricordeau, Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at the California State University, Chico and member of the scientific committee of the Institut des Amériques.



In the United States, around 2.3 million people are incarcerated, for the most part in county jails and local prisons (0.6 million), state (1.3 million) and federal (0.2 million).


The incarceration rate in the US (398 people in prison per 100 000) is one of the highest in the world and is much higher than that of other western democracies (104/100 000 in France for example), because of a justice system that often hands down heavy sentences. As pointed out by the NGO Prison Policy, up to 113 million people have a family member who is or has been in prison.

Incarceration in the USA (source PrisonPolicy)
Incarceration in the USA (source PrisonPolicy)

Even though we should not generalize because of the diversity in penal regimes, a number of factors makes US prisons a breeding ground for the spread of the epidemic. Contrary to many preconceptions, prisons are not appropriate places for confinement. In fact, "social distancing" is impossible. In minimum to medium security prisons, inmates are more likely to be in dorms than in individual cells. Not only is there a lack of privacy, but there are often numerous comings and goings (inmates, security guards, etc.). For example, county jails have an average stay of 26 days and the guard/inmate ratio is 1 to 4. On top of that, the United States has more than one hundred "mega jails", i.e. detention centers with over one thousand people, such as the Los Angeles detention center and Rikers Island. So in these mega jails, there are hundreds of personnel and inmates who come and go every day.


Knowing what we know about the coronavirus, a number of these inmates present mounting risk factors. Chronic diseases (respiratory pathologies, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc.) are more frequent within the prison population than on the outside. Furthermore, inmates over 55 represent about 10 % of the penal population, and it is often estimated that a 55 year old inmate's health is usually comparable to that of a 65 to 70 year old on the outside.


There is a wide consensus among health experts - including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - to reduce the number of inmates during the pandemic. Most states have taken measures to that effect, either by anticipating a release or sentencing adjustments (for example, placing an electronic bracelet), by reducing the number of incarcerations, abandoning pursuits for certain types of offenses (such as sex work, certain offenses tied to the use of narcotic products and public urination). But these measures have a limited effect on the number of inmates and they are not without problems: for some people, access to healthcare and different forms of protection from the coronavirus are better inside the prison than out, especially if, upon release, they have no housing, no financial resources. In prison, prior to the epidemic, most states applied a co-payment policy (a few dollars or more per medical visit) which restricted access to healthcare for a number of poor inmates. Because of the epidemic, all states, except for Nevada, Hawaii and Delaware, now have suspended this policy and it is uncertain whether those released today, should they suffer from social exclusion, will have access to the healthcare that would have been provided in prison.

Rikers Island prison complex (New York; source Wikipedia)
Rikers Island prison complex (New York; source Wikipedia)

In federal prisons, employees and inmates are supposed to use the masks that were distributed to them since April 4. However, it seems that this measure is not always followed and, in state prisons, it is usually forbidden to cover your face in any way - some inmates were taken to court for having used, precisely, a mask. Furthermore, few inmates have access to desinfectants, for they are forbidden by most penal administrations who fear its use could be diverted for other things. Inmates don't always have access to soap (they often have to buy it) and sometimes even, access to water is limited. However, some of them contribute (for a salary rarely above a few dollars per day) to the collective effort against the epidemic, either by making masks or by digging mass graves (New York).


A number of administrations have chosen to reduce the inmates' movements within the complexe, for example by reducing or suspending group activities and walks, if not by putting the whole prison on lockdown, i.e. by confining the inmates in their cells or their dorms. On top of all this, visits and activities with outside parties were suspended mid-March in most establishments.


It's during that period that the first cases of coronavirus among inmates appeared on the East coast, at Rikers Island prison. Since then, most states now have sick people behind bars and the rate of contamination among inmates is sometimes very high. In Ohio, on April 22nd, Marion and Pickaway prisons, in which are incarcerated respectively 2 482 and 1 536 people, gave a contamination rate of 81 % and 77 %. In Westville prison (Indiana), the inmate contamination rate is 92 %. Federal prisons seem to have been mostly spared for now from the epidemic: out of the 143 000 inmates, only 566 cases of coronavirus were reported, but 24 inmates have already died, which suggests a much higher contamination rate than what was announced. Many states have already registered their first inmate deaths from the coronavirus: among those who have died, some had light sentences and some had been incarcerated because their legal supervision had run out.

A slow response to the healthcare crisis in the prisons and the gravity of the epidemic has brought about inmate uprisings (riots, refusals of food plates, hunger strikes, etc.) in many states. There were two mass jailbreaks: 14 men escaped from the Yakima county jail (Washington) and 9 women escaped from a community work center in South Dakota. A number of hunger strikes are also taking place in administrative retention centers where the locked-up people are also confronted with the current uncertainty with respect to the US immigration policy.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [1] estimates that the spread of the coronavirus in US prisons could cause up to 99 000 deaths - 76 000 would be from people living around these prisons who would be contaminated by people working in them. So, one can only hope that strong measures will be taken quickly to avoid this disaster. Calls to free the prisoners, especially through social media with the hashtag #FreeThemAll, bring to mind that in prison there are few recourses to fight the epidemic.


Gwenola Ricordeau is an Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at the California State University, Chico and member of the scientific committee of the Institut des Amériques. Her research focuses on the penal system, in France and in the United States, in particular on relatives of prisoners, sexuality in prison and protests against the penal system. She is the author of Les détenus et leurs proches. Solidarités et sentiments à l’ombre des murs (Autrement, 2008) and Pour elles toutes. Femmes contre la prison ! (Lux, 2019).