The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate and largest systems for locking people up. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began, abolitionists and advocates warned the virus would be amplified by prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible, ventilation is often poor and people are more likely to have underserved medical needs.
The virus, they warned, would spread quickly both inside and beyond prison walls. They were right.
As new cases and deaths surge nationwide, the combined number of confirmed cases among people incarcerated in immigration jails and state and federal prisons has surpassed 250,000. The number of cases has more than quadrupled since July, and infection rates have steadily grown since September. During the week prior to December 8, 2,224 new cases were reported nationally, an increase of 10 percent from the week before.
At least 1,665 incarcerated people have died due to the virus, although that may be an undercount because testing and reporting practices vary wildly across various prison systems.
There were modest dips in incarceration rates during the initial months of the pandemic, in part because some wardens and sheriffs refused to take new prisoners. Now incarceration rates appear headed in the opposite direction, even as the pandemic reaches its most intense phase to date. Population drops at state prisons slowed or reversed over the summer, and the number of people held in local jails is the highest since April.
More than 66,000 prison and immigration jail staff have tested positive, and at least 112 have died, according to reports and available data. Prisons and jails topped the list of largest outbreaks in late summer and early fall, and research now shows that the virus has spread much faster in parts of the country where prisons and immigration jails are located.
Between May and August, jails run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its contractors alone were responsible for about 245,000 cases across the country.
The number of people caged in ICE jails ballooned under the Trump administration’s harsh crackdown on immigration and set the stage for a COVID crisis.
Immigrants have launched more than 100 protest actions and hunger strikes in ICE jails across the U.S. Earlier this year.
“I can’t eat this food — it has gotten worse in here since the pandemic started,” said Gloria, one of the hunger strikers, in a phone call to supporters. “I’m afraid of eating the food and getting COVID-19 because the virus is all around us.”