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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Prisons: A Petri Dish for COVID-19

United States prisons house 25 percent of the world’s 10.35 million imprisoned people, and five of the top 10 COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. are prisons or jails. What can we learn about pandemics and public health in prisons from the country with the world’s largest prison population? Northwestern University professor and Prison Education Program (NPEP) Director Dr. Jennifer Lackey and Uptown People’s Law Center Executive Director Alan Mills joined the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs for a discussion on COVID-19 contagion in U.S. prisons and what measures could help curtail it.  They were joined by NPEP student Antonio McDowell, who was recently released from Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center and shared his firsthand account of serving time there amidst COVID-19. Here are three key takeaways:

COVID-19 combined with overcrowding is a lethal combination. Overcrowding in prisons is a global challenge, with prisons in countries such as Haiti and the Philippines operating at more than 400 percent capacity. The U.S. is no exception, with 17 states housing more prisoners than their facilities were designed to hold. Even if prisons in the U.S. were operating at or below capacity, the average prison cell for two people is six by eight feet, Lackey said. “If two people in a cell that size stand up, it’s impossible not to bump into each other. In these kind of conditions, there is no possibility of following physical distancing guidelines,” she said.

A lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) exacerbates the challenge, and “hand sanitizer is not allowed in most prison cells due to the high alcohol content,” she said. McDowell, who served 23 years at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center, talked about the conditions on the ground: “They would give us a hotel-sized bar of soap to last a week and had eight shower heads for 12 people,” he said. “When you look at that, in combination with a lack of ventilation, we were destined to become sick.” The consequences of these conditions have been devastating, with nearly 90 percent of incarcerated people at some facilities with widespread or universal testing such as Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute confirmed positive for COVID-19. As of mid-June, at least 48,764 incarcerated people in U.S. prisons tested positive for the virus, and a disproportionate number of U.S. prisoners are Black. “We are warehousing largely Black men in deplorable conditions under the best of circumstances,” Mills said. “It’s a really dark reality as an African American man,” McDowell added. “African Americans are suffering equally in communities and in prisons.”  

We need new approaches to combating COVID-19 in prisons. Amid overcrowding and a lack of PPE, prisons have resorted to using solitary confinement to try to contain COVID-19, but that could actually contribute to exacerbating the problem, not to mention long-term psychological harm, Mills said. “Thousands of people are locked in cells 24 hours a day not because they’ve done anything wrong but because of so-called medical reasons,” he said. “15 days in solitary confinement is considered torture, and we’ve kept many prisoners in solitary for three months now.” Also, the use of solitary to control the virus “dissuades people with symptoms from reporting them,” Mills added. “We should be encouraging them to come forward, not threatening to punish them. If prisoners test positive for COVID, put them in a medical environment versus a punitive one.” 

The keys to controlling COVID-19 in prisons in the short-term are universal testing, contact tracing, and leveraging existing policies such as clemency, good time restoration, and medical furlough for reducing the prison population, Mills said. The challenge is ensuring equitable application of these policies: “white people are twice as likely to get out of prison early than Black people, so that’s an issue that has to be solved,” Mills said, pointing to the fact that a disproportionate amount of good time restoration—time shaved off a sentence for each day an incarcerated person spends in prison without violating rules—is awarded to white people. “A majority of the prison population is Black, yet a majority of good time restoration goes to white prisoners,” he said.

“I think that the COVID-19 crisis is challenging us to examine and confront the systemic racism, inequities, and moral failures of the United States criminal justice system,” Lackey added. “It has devastated vulnerable communities such as prison populations and reveals the nation’s prioritizing of some lives over others, but I think that we can divest from the systems that have led to this national crisis and invest in the things that will truly make our communities flourish such as education, health care, and support services.”

It’s time to rethink how we define punishment and accountability. Studies reliably show no causal relationship between incarceration and safer communities. To the contrary, “they show a direct connection between investment in people, communities, and systems that support the flourishing of communities,” Lackey said. “If punishment made us safe, the U.S. would be the safest place in the world,” Mills added. “Our problem is not a lack of police. It’s a lack of mental health care, high-quality education, summer jobs for kids, after-school programs, and other things we should be investing in instead of more police on the streets.”

Mills pointed to Norway as an example of a country that has successfully pivoted from more punitive to restorative forms of justice and significantly lowered its recidivism rate. “Rehabilitation is a real thing,” McDowell said. “We have to give people the benefit of the doubt that they can change…and go back out into society and rebuild.” Lackey concurred: “I think this nation needs to reckon with how it understands punishment and accountability. Together, we can accept an invitation to rethink what justice and accountability demands and, in so doing, reimagine what’s possible,” she said.

“There is a lot of privilege out there. We need people who are privileged to come forward and take a strong stance,” McDowell added, and Lackey pointed to a variety of resources that can help us do that.

“I hope 50 to 100 years from now, we can look back at this and say, ‘What in the world were those people thinking?’” Mills said.

Additional Resources: 

Uptown People's Law Center: COVID-19 in Illinois Prisons

Restore Justice Illinois: Updated Recommendations: COVID-19 and Prison Communities

Restore Justice Illinois: The Facts About Illinois’s 848 (Not 4,000) COVID-19 Related Early Prison Releases