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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

The ACLU and other groups sue to free people from the deadliest federal prison; a new study finds that coronavirus-driven jail releases hasn’t caused an increase in crime; and half of people in South Dakota prisons have tested positive for COVID-19.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

The ACLU and other groups sue to free people from the deadliest federal prison; a new study finds that coronavirus-driven jail releases hasn’t caused an increase in crime; and half of people in South Dakota prisons have tested positive for COVID-19.


Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional health care 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 past several months, The Appeal has been examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails. Read recent posts.


Yesterday, several civil-rights groups, including the ACLU, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) over its handling of COVID-19 outbreaks at the prison in Butner, North Carolina. The lawsuit asks for the release of people whose medical conditions put them at risk of complications or death from the virus.

Butner, a sprawling complex located 30 miles north of Raleigh, holds nearly 4,000 men and consists of four facilities: a medical center, a unit for prisoners convicted of low-level crimes, and two medium-security units. 

According to the complaint, nearly a quarter of the people incarcerated at Butner have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Twenty-six have died, more than at any other federal prison.  

The complaint notes that while the number of reported infections has declined from a high of nearly 700 in June, new infections continue at a steady pace, “demonstrating that the virus remains circulating at Butner.” 

“Without action by this Court, more people at Butner will become infected and more people will die,” the complaint says.

It’s the second lawsuit the groups have filed against the BOP alleging that officials have failed to protect Butner’s most vulnerable detainees. In early June, despite a growing outbreak that ultimately claimed 10 lives, a federal judge sided with the BOP, agreeing it had “made reasonable efforts” to control the virus. One of the men who died, John Dailey, was a named plaintiff in the case. Dailey, 62, was a podiatrist who had been convicted of Medicare fraud and sentenced to 27 months. According to a press release announcing his July 3 death, he’d been at Butner since Nov. 5, 2019.

According to a report by the Washington Post, Dailey suffered from lymphoma and had requested compassionate release. His request was denied and a subsequent appeal to the BOP was rejected “because it contained more than one page of addendums, which is beyond the bureau’s limit.”

The Oct. 27 complaint argues that the BOP lacks a coherent testing strategy—meaning the true number of infections at the prison is unknown—and has failed to reconfigure its housing units to allow for social distancing, especially among elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners. And, the filing says, despite direction from U.S. Attorney General William Barr “to expeditiously consider” requests from medically vulnerable people for home confinement or other release,” federal attorneys continue to challenge those requests.


At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, to allow for social distancing, many county jails released people who had been charged with low-level crimes and limited new bookings to felonies. A recent analysis by the Vera Institute found that, nationwide, there were roughly 200,000 fewer people in jails in June than in mid-March. 

The JFA Institute, a consulting firm focused on criminal-justice issues, analyzed the data to assess whether the jail releases have had any impact on public safety. The study analyzes crimes, arrests, and jail bookings in six counties: Charleston (South Carolina), Orleans Parish, Clark County (Las Vegas), Cook County (Chicago), Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), and San Francisco.

 Researchers found that, beginning in March 2020, there was an overall significant decline in serious crimes reported to law enforcement compared to the previous year. Only Cook County saw a significant increase—followed by a decrease—in crimes, and three counties (Orleans Parish, Clark, and Allegheny) reported small increases.

“The clear conclusion is that overall crime has declined since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, particularly for the crime of larceny-theft,” researchers conclude, contrary to some media reports that link jail releases to crime spikes. “At the same time, there has been no increase in the aggregate number of violent crimes. With specific regard to murder, the trends are mixed, with some sites seeing increases and others seeing no change.”


➤ At least 143 of the 327 people who work at Michigan’s Marquette Branch Prison have tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the state’s Department of Corrections to bring in employees from other facilities and transfer more than 200 Marquette prisoners. Of roughly 600 men who remain at the prison, all but 45 had caught the virus, the Detroit Free Press reports

➤ In the absence of a national testing strategy, many correctional and immigrant-detention facilities continue to limit coronavirus testing to symptomatic individuals. “In settings where even soap can be hard to come by, the lack of testing has proven to be a disaster,” write Harvard researchers Parsa Erfani, Caroline Lee, and Nishant Uppal in a piece for STAT

Nearly 1,600 people, almost half of South Dakota’s prison population, have tested positive for COVID-19, reports Danielle Ferguson with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Cases at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, in particular, spiked over the weekend, increasing from 166 on Friday to 521 today. And at the Mike Durfee State Prison, 698 of 1,022 prisoners have also tested positive for the virus.   

➤ The third installment of Reuters’ multi-part series investigating deaths in jails asks whether decarceration efforts tied to the coronavirus pandemic will put an end to mass incarceration. Some opponents to decarceration, like Fresno County (Calif.) Sheriff Margaret Mims, have argued that mass releases will lead to more crime. Other officials, however, like Dave Mahoney, the sheriff in Dane County, Wisc., and president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, see things differently. Mahoney told reporters that he’s exploring ways to keep his jail population down: “The public is saying, ‘Look … let’s learn from the forced lessons.’”