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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

An outbreak at Montana’s Cascade County jail demonstrates the risk COVID-19 poses to rural communities, the virus has infected nearly 2,000 children in juvenile-detention facilities, and one large Michigan prison is grappling with an outbreak that’s infected roughly one-third of its staff.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

An outbreak at Montana’s Cascade County jail demonstrates the risk COVID-19 poses to rural communities, the virus has infected nearly 2,000 children in juvenile-detention facilities, and one large Michigan prison is grappling with an outbreak that’s infected roughly one-third of its staff.


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. 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 recent posts.


The Cascade County Detention Center, built in 1998, has been overcrowded for years. When a COVID-19 outbreak hit the Montana jail in late August, sleeping mats were on “the floor in the day room, in shower stalls, in stairwells, in hallways outside of cells,” New York Times reporters Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte, and Libby Seline write

While cases in the jail are now on the decline, the virus has infected more than 300 people there—including those incarcerated and those who work at the jail. Roughly a quarter of all known cases in Cascade County—where the local hospital’s 27-bed COVID-19 unit is at capacity—are tied to the jail, the Times reports. As a state, Montana has recently emerged as a coronavirus hotspot, with cases jumping from roughly 100 a day in August to now more than 700.

Other Montana correctional facilities are seeing large outbreaks that threaten to overwhelm nearby medical resources. Montana State Prison, in Deer Lodge—a town of roughly 3,000,where the prison is the main employer—is dealing with a growing outbreak. And at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, another small town, 239 people have tested positive for the virus, according to the Montana Department of Corrections.


Since late March, The Sentencing Project’s Josh Rovner has been tracking cases of COVID-19 in juvenile-detention facilities. According to Rovner’s tally, nearly 2,000 young detainees have been infected with the virus since March 24; roughly 400 of them live in Florida.

“Those who would dismiss the numbers—either because you don’t know any incarcerated kids or because they haven’t yet died—should know that a similar number of staff working in Florida’s youth facilities have contracted the virus,” Rovner wrote in an op-ed for the Palm Beach Post. “The virus doesn’t care whether your uniform reads ‘staff’ or ‘detainee.’ Give it a chance to transmit, and it will.”

Rovner urges Florida officials to reduce the population of its juvenile-detention centers. He points to neighboring Georgia, which has seen two-thirds fewer cases among juvenile detainees than Florida. 

Rovner’s op-ed follows his recent report, Youth Justice Under the Coronavirus, which includes a chart showing that, unlike in jails and prisons, where overcrowding often spurs outbreaks, most juvenile-detention facilities affected by COVID-19 are holding far fewer children than they were designed to accommodate. Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall, for example, has space for 622 but now houses 41. 

“Drops in admissions during the pandemic buttress the long-standing case that youth incarceration is largely unnecessary,” Rovner writes. The fact that so many facilities have scaled back—or even halted—educational and therapeutic programs as well as family visits further underscores the harm of keeping kids locked up amid the pandemic.   

“The juvenile system strives to distinguish itself from adult corrections by valuing rehabilitation over punishment; ending such programming blurs that difference,” Rovner writes.


The ACLU, in collaboration with UCLA’s Prison Law and Policy Program, recently made public its Death by Incarceration tracker, which lists all known deaths in prisons and jails due to COVID-19. Check back on Wednesday when we’ll take a deeper dive into the data. 

More than one-third of the staff at the Marquette Branch Prison in Michigan have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are waiting for test results, Angie Jackson with the Detroit Free Press reports. More staff members at the prison have contracted the virus than at any of the state’s 29 other prisons. “Coronavirus cases are climbing among prisoners as well,” Jackson writes. As of Friday evening, at least 204 of 972 incarcerated people who were tested at Marquette Branch were positive for the virus. 

A new report by the ACLU of Colorado describes efforts to reduce the state’s jail population—to allow for social distancing—as “smart, safe, and thoughtful, with a clear focus on reserving jail beds for people who pose a threat to others.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado jails were at 81 percent capacity; they’re currently at 47 percent capacity, though the report warns that some jails have seen a recent population uptick. “We must not accept a return to the ‘normal’ that contributed to making this pandemic so much worse,” the report urges.