In 2020, a decades-long American policy failure — mass incarceration — collided with a brand new American policy failure: the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. After decades of needlessly locking up ever more people in jails and prisons, state and federal lawmakers now faced a public health disaster if they were unable to decarcerate quickly. In this report, we show that the persistent overuse of incarceration — despite decades of evidence of its inefficacy and harms — has had serious consequences. Mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases, not just inside correctional facilities, but in the communities and counties that surround them.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus, putting incarcerated people and staff at serious risk once the novel coronavirus entered facilities. Officials across the country ignored the threat for too long, perhaps imagining that confined populations would be too isolated from the outside world to contract the virus. But the boundaries between life “inside” and surrounding communities are actually quite porous, with staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors constantly flowing in and out of correctional facilities — not to mention the frequent turnover and transfers of incarcerated people themselves.