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In the units that follow, we invite participants to think about the prison as an institution, its history, and its role in spread of infectious diseases. Then turn more specifically to COVID-19 with units on: the scope of the problem in prisons and jails, on federal, state and local responses to the pandemic, and on the potential for persistent impacts.  

This COVID-19 Pandemic in Prisons module contains an introduction and four lessons to lead learners in an investigation of the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted, and will continue to affect, correctional populations and staff.  Across each of the lessons, we ask participants to consider impacts not only to the institutions and to those who live and work in them, but also to the communities in which jails and prisons are situated and to which incarcerated persons return.

The Marshall Project: Tracking the Spread of COVID-19 in Prisons 

In mid-March, the Marshall Project, in collaboration with The Associated Press, began tracking the spread of the coronavirus in prisons across the United States and have been maintaining an interactive website that collects state-level statistics.

By August 4, 2020 over 86,000 people in prison had tested positive for COVID-19—more than doubling estimates from May 2020. In addition, at least 800 incarcerated persons had died from the virus—estimates that are certainly undercounts due to substantial variations in testing, data sharing, and reporting across states. Social and physical distancing is impossible in places that confine hundreds to thousands of people in such close proximity, and experts have projected disastrous consequences.

Focus on San Quentin

San Quentin State Prison

In each unit, we return to San Quentin State Prison in California as a case study. As one of the most well-known prisons in the United States, San Quentin has been the focus of a lot of the reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in correctional settings. Built in the 1850s, San Quentin is the oldest prison still in use in California. San Quentin is a maximum security state prison for men located in Marin County.

  1. Video: “Protecting People in Prison from Infectious Diseases | Coronavirus”

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Participate in informed discussions about the scope and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails
  • Conduct research on how COVID-19 pandemic has had differential impacts on prison and jail populations across places
  • Critically evaluate variations in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails across jurisdictions
  • Communicate your understanding of the broader impacts of the pandemic and its implications for mass incarceration.

In this unit, we provide a brief history of infectious diseases in prisons. We open by describing the optimistic outlook of the early advocates of the penitentiary (as described by well-known historian, David J. Rothman). We then offer the examples of the Spanish Flu outbreak in the early 1900s and the spread of hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV in more contemporary times. We offer these examples because the spread of contagious diseases has long been an issue in prisons and jails and there have been efforts to contain the spread of diseases in prisons before COVID-19 emerged as a worldwide pandemic in late 2019 and early 2020.

  1. Reading: Extracts from Discovery of the Asylum (Recommend Chapter 4)
  2. Reading: Ashley Rubin, “Prisons and jails are coronavirus epicenters – but they were once designed to prevent disease outbreaks,” The Conversation
  3. Reading: L.L. Stanley, “Influenza at San Quentin Prison, California,” SAGE Journals 
  4. Reading: Don Chaddock,“1918 flu pandemic puts prison medical staff to test,” CDCR
  5. Video: “Untreated: Hepatitis C, America’s Prison Epidemic”
  6. Video: “Combating TB, HIV and malaria in detention — Uganda’s experience”
  7. Interview: George Williams, Catholic Chaplain at San Quentin State Prison
  8. Video: “Inside Prison Amid Coronavirus Pandemic: Incarcerated Journalist Says Millions Behind Bars at Risk”
  9. Questions to Consider:
  • Why have prisons and jails been described as ‘petri dishes’ for the spread of disease?
  • Given the long history of infectious disease spread in prisons and jails, what could have, and should have, been learned from the past?
  • Is the COVID-19 pandemic ‘different’ than previous infectious diseases in correctional facilities? If so, in what ways?
  • Why might the containment steps (screening, isolation, and treatment) that have been somewhat successful in containing the spread of contagious diseases in prisons in the past be inadequate in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • Given the close proximity in many prisons, correctional staff may opt to use solitary confinement at higher rates and restrict visitation when pandemics begin to spread.  What are some of the negative consequences of these approaches?


As COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic in early 2020, the potential for profound impacts on closed environments and institutions was immediately apparent. Jails and prisons, which in the United States house close to 2 million people in exceptionally close quarters, were quickly identified as likely incubators contributing to the rapid spread of the virus.

The Marshall Project: A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons

Since March 2020, the Marshall Project, in collaboration with The Associated Press, began tracking the spread of the coronavirus in prisons across the United States and have been maintaining an interactive website that collects and summarizes state-level statistics.  To develop an understanding of the scope of the problem, participants should spend time on their website (linked here) exploring state-by-state variations in not only the spread of COVID-19, but also in the quality of the reporting of data related to that spread.

  1. Reading: Amy Maxmen, “California’s San Quentin prison declined free coronavirus tests and urgent advice — now it has a massive outbreak,” Nature
  2. Interview: Extract from Interview with George Williams
  3. Reading: “Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19) – Statistics and Research,” Our World in Data
  4. Questions to Consider:
  • What can we learn from interviews and qualitative data sources, such as the chaplain’s descriptions of his experiences in San Quentin, that is difficult to capture in quantitative data (and vice versa)?
  • Based on your exploration of the different data sources, what do you feel confident that we know, and what do we still need to learn about COVID-19 in correctional facilities?
  • When you were creating your bar chart, did you encounter any challenges with missing data?  If so, what types of information were missing, and why might that be?  What kinds of questions (if any) did you have about what your selected measures were including or excluding?
  • What other pieces of information would you collect on COVID-19 in prisons and jails if you could?  What else would help us to better understand how the pandemic is unfolding in prisons and jails and the implications of high institutional rates for people who live outside of these institutions?


How has the coronavirus affected prison and jail populations in your home state or country? 

  1. Visit the “Our World in Data” website, and/or other resources that you can find, to explore the scope of COVID-19 for the United States (and another country of interest to you). Set the context by writing a summary of the known scope and spread of the pandemic in the United States and in the country that you have chosen (be sure to date the summary and to document your sources as the situation is so fluid).
  2. Use data from the Open ICPSR website to build a graphic of the spread of the coronavirus in prisons in a state of your choice (or comparing the same measure across two or more states). You can download the file directly from the Open ICPSR website in different formats, or use the Excel file included in the Additional Resources section.

In this unit, we review some of the guidance related to responding to COVID-19 in prisons and institutional settings. We start with the prison specific guidance offered by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and then consider the ways in which three different jurisdictions have responded. Then we consider how inmates and their family members reacted to the pandemic and their perceptions of response efforts.

  1. Reading: “Prisons and custodial settings are part of a comprehensive response to COVID-19,” World Health Organization (WHO)
  2. Reading: “CDC Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
  3. Reading: “Covid-19 and Corrections: Challenges and Strategies,” CCJ OR Watch: “Covid-19 and Corrections: Challenges and Strategies”
  4. Interview: George Williams, Catholic Chaplain at San Quentin State Prison
  5. Podcast: “Special: Prisoners Face Coronavirus” (March 26, 2020), Uncuffed
  6. Podcast: Ear Hustle Extra: Summer Listening


For this exercise, select a state and explore the official response to COVID-19 in that state. We encourage you to start with the official websites for the department of correction in the state you have chosen. How does the department describe its own COVID-19 efforts? Conduct a mixed-media search for news stories, blogs, podcasts, and editorials that discuss the response. Where possible, focus specifically on prevention efforts, prison population reduction efforts, and community impacts.

  • Scope of the Problem – Briefly describe the scope of the problem in the jurisdiction providing specific and timely estimates of the prison population size and of the prevalence of COVID-19 for the prison population (where possible distinguish between incarcerated persons and people who work in prisons).
  • Prevention Efforts – What efforts did the jurisdiction take to try to prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19 in its correctional institutions?
  • Population Reduction Efforts – Has the jurisdiction engaged in any prison population reduction efforts (including early and/or compassionate release)? If so, what sorts of efforts have been undertaken and how much has the jurisdiction been able to reduce the prison population? Be sure to identify your sources.
  • Community Impacts – Is there any evidence of community impacts of these efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons? How have prevention and prison population reduction efforts been described in the media?


In this unit, we focus on the broader impacts and the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for incarcerated people and for the communities to which they return. We ask participants to consider the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases in prisons and communities, particularly given the pronounced racial disparities in rates of incarceration. As we conclude the unit, we ask participants to consider whether a worldwide pandemic can alter the way we think about mass incarceration as a solution to the problem of crime.

Mass Incarceration and Infectious Diseases: Broader Community Impacts

While institutionalized groups are isolated from the outside world in some ways, they are also connected to (and interact with) surrounding communities. Most prisoners eventually return to their communities, and may be subject to early release policies as a result of COVID-19. Meanwhile, correctional staff transition in and out of facilities on a regular basis.

  1. Video: “Covid Crisis at San Quentin”
  2. Reading: James Hamblin, “Mass Incarceration Is Making Infectious Diseases Worse,” The Atlantic 
  3. Reading: “The COVID Racial Data Tracker,” The Atlantic 
  4. Reading: Ibram X. Kendi, “Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus,” The Atlantic
  5. Interview: George Williams, Catholic Chaplain at San Quentin State Prison
  6. Reading: Sarah Stillman, “Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?,” The New Yorker
  7. Questions to Consider:
  • Reflecting on the materials throughout the unit (and throughout the module if you have completed multiple units), what would you recommend to policymakers as the top 2-3 priorities as federal, state and local officials address the COVID-19 pandemic in correctional facilities?
  • The pandemic has created new challenges in society, reproduced inequalities, and drawn attention to existing problems. What types of opportunities and reforms might exist for reducing mass incarceration in light of COVID-19?
  • The sources used in the units of this module were collected up until the first week of August 2020. What recent changes do you see (if any) in cases, institutional responses, progress and setbacks for COVID-19 in correctional facilities?
  • Is there any evidence of community impacts of these efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons? How have prevention and prison population reduction efforts been described in the media?