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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus—a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk. Every day, The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system—overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Read Thursday’s update.

In a Sunday evening tweet, California Assemblyman Marc Levine, whose Northern California district includes San Quentin prison, had harsh words for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR): 

He included a screenshot of CDCR’s COVID-19 tracker, showing 209 active cases at San Quentin. Today, cases are up to 238. Three weeks ago, the prison had only one case. 

San Francisco Chronicle reporters Jason Fagone and Megan Cassidy have written extensively about the missteps leading to the outbreak in San Quentin. On May 30, 121 prisoners were transferred there from the overcrowded California Institution for Men in Chino, which was struggling to get an outbreak under control. While CDCR said prisoners were tested prior to the transfer, Fagone and Cassidy found that many of those tests had been conducted weeks earlier. 

CDCR also said all the men transferred to San Quentin were quarantined. In a story published Saturday, Fagone and Cassidy report that some of the men were placed on one floor of a multi-tier unit with no solid doors, “allowing vapor and droplets to mingle in the air and fall from the upper tiers to the lower ones….For some reason, prison leaders had mingled the men from the virus-swamped facility in Chino with previously healthy and uninfected members of the San Quentin population.”

It’s not just prisoners who fell ill. The reporters also tell the story of 36-year-old Andrew Aguilar, a San Quentin corrections officer who described how prior to the transfer, staff and prisoners worked together to keep COVID out of the facility. Now Aguilar, who’d help escort the transfers tested positive and was hospitalized after his wife rushed him to the ER last week.

According to CDCR’s tracker, 342 staff have an active case COVID-19, including 37 from San Quentin. One correctional officer died May 30, according to a CDCR news release.

Wasco State Prison is another California facility that, prior to June 1, reported no cases of COVID-19. On May 25, CDCR announced it would begin accepting transfers from county jails, which had been put on hold on March 31. Only North Kern State Prison and Wasco State Prison would accept transfers.

On June 17, the Fresno County jail approved the transfer of 25 men to Wasco, which sits roughly 100 miles south of the jail. A week earlier, all 25 had tested negative for COVID-19. In a press release Friday, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department announced that 13 of the 25 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival. 

The entire North Annex Jail is now on quarantine, the press release says, including nine people with fevers. None have been tested.  


Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has resisted calls by public health experts to require people in his state to wear masks, only recently rescinding an executive order barring counties from mandating masks. Last week, David Shinn, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, issued an order that all prison staff wear masks, The Arizona Republic reports. As of late last week, 144 staff and 314 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19. “The state Department of Corrections is not supplying all prison inmates with masks,” Lauren Castle and Maria Polletta report. “However, it told The Republic it is examining the expansion of its masking process for inmates.”

Arizona has seen a significant spike in COVID-19 cases, with Maricopa, the state’s most populous county, reporting the majority of them. Last week, the ACLU and two private law firms filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine people incarcerated at the jail, where there have been at least 356 positive cases.

*There’s been a steady increase in new cases at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, New Mexico, where more than 800 people have tested positive for COVID-19, making the prison—which holds state and federal detainees—responsible for nearly 8 percent of New Mexico’s roughly 10,600 cases. 

*Twenty percent of COVID-19 cases among Alabama Department of Corrections staff and prisoners have been at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County, Ala. Fifteen Staton prisoners and 24 staff have COVID-19. The prison is also currently 176 percent overcapacity, the Alabama Political Reporter’s Eddie Burkhalter writes. A graph in Burkhalter’s story shows 145 DOC staff testing positive compared with 48 prisoners, though only 277 prisoners out of roughly 20,000 have been tested, according to the DOC’s website

*The Virginia Department of Corrections is reporting 180 active cases of COVID-19 at the Greensville Correctional Center, making the prison—located in rural Jarratt, Virginia (pop. 590)—responsible for more than half of current positive cases in all Virginia prisons. In a story published in mid-May in The San Francisco Bay View, Uhuru Baraka Rowe, a Greensville prisoner, described the prison as “a potential death trap” where incarcerated people weren’t being given sanitation supplies and no one was being screened for symptoms.