The American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative released a 50-state report entitled “Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons.” This all new report shows that, despite having ample time and information to take the steps necessary to heed the warnings of experts and save the lives of those incarcerated in their prisons and jails, state governments across the country refused to adequately address the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses in jails and prisons. The new report explains how each state ignored the pleas of incarcerated people and the warnings of medical experts. Nine of the 10 largest clusters of COVID-19 in the nation are in prisons and jails.
The report evaluates states' responses to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails using the following criteria:
- Did/does the state department of corrections provide testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to correctional staff and the incarcerated population?
- Did/does the state reduce county jail populations and state prison populations in response to the spread of the pandemic?
- Did the governor issue an executive order — or the department of corrections issue a directive — accelerating the release from state prisons of medically vulnerable individuals and/or those near the end of their sentence?
- Did/does the state publish regularly updated, publicly available data on COVID-19 in the state prison system?
Governors across the nation have failed to take adequate steps to protect people in prisons and jails from the COVID-19 pandemic. From the outset of the pandemic, public health experts sounded the alarm that without swift and drastic actions, prisons and jails across the country would see severe outbreaks of COVID-19. Today, prisons and jails are ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, inflicting particular devastation on Black and Brown people, yet prisons and jails continue to be largely ignored in the government’s response to the pandemic. This report not only highlights that callous disregard but provides actionable steps for those same governments to take immediate steps to save the lives of people in jails and prisons.
“Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons” comes at a time when COVID-19 is still decimating jails and prisons. Millions of people leave jails and prisons every year, each person serving as a vector to outside communities, as documented in a recent ACLU report. Too many facilities are still responding ineffectively in a way that further undermines public health and basic human rights. The assessments in the report offer guidance as to what states can still do to save lives now and in the case of future waves of COVID-19 — or future pandemics. There is a key lesson to be learned: States must downsize the footprint of their criminal legal system for the sake of public health and racial justice.