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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

An overview of gubernatorial candidates and their stances on decarceration during the pandemic, a new lawsuit argues that Massachusetts corrections officials are ignoring home-confinement requests, and new infections spike at the Fort Dix federal prison in New Jersey.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

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.

Despite early calls for large-scale releases “prisons are releasing almost no one,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s analysis of the criminal-legal system’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which means that many of the governors up for reelection tomorrow have neglected to reduce their state’s prison populations. Below is a list of states with a governor’s race on the ballot and short summaries of where the candidates stand on the issue of decarceration.  


John Carney (incumbent, D): Early in the pandemic, Delaware’s chief public defender urged Carney to release people who were near the end of their sentences or were suffering from serious medical issues. Carney declined, claiming that state prisons had enough room “to spread the inmates out.” There have been only 28 cases of coronavirus in Delaware prisons since September, but, prior to that, more than 500 incarcerated people tested positive for the virus and 11 died.

Julianne Murray (R): Murray supports tough-on-crime policies that would put more people in prison.


Eric Holcomb (incumbent, R): Holcomb left it up to county courts to decide who would get released from prison. As Side Effects’ Jake Harper reported in July, “very few have done so—even as the number of COVID-19 cases in the prison system surged.” 

Woody Meyers (D): Meyers’ plan for criminal-legal reform includes a pledge to re-examine “who we detain in our prisons and jails, and for how long.”


Mike Parson (incumbent, R): Parson’s administration hasn’t granted any coronavirus-related releases, has declined to provide information about people who die from COVID-19 in state prisons, and has claimed the state is doing a good job at managing the virus even when infection numbers spiked.

Nicole Galloway (D): While Galloway has laid out a plan for police reform, she hasn’t said anything about incarceration. 


Mike Cooney (D): Cooney is currently Montana’s lieutenant governor. In April, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive asking the Board of Pardons and Parole to consider early release for older and medically vulnerable prisoners. As far as Cooney’s position on early releases, advocates for incarcerated people say he wouldn’t meet with them. Cooney, however, told the Montana Free Press that he supports alternatives to incarceration.

Greg Gianforte (R): Gianforte is an investor in CoreCivic, which runs two Montana prisons where more than 260 people have tested positive for COVID-19.


Chris Sununu (incumbent, R): In April, Sununu told the Concord Monitor that he wasn’t opposed to judges releasing people to home confinement on a case-by-case basis. According to the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, only one prisoner in the state has tested positive for COVID-19.

Dan Feltes (D): A state senator and Legal Aid attorney, Feltes has said that he wants to explore prison alternatives for people who commit low-level crimes.


Roy Cooper (incumbent, D): The state’s Department of Public Safety granted early release to 485 people with high-risk medical conditions and granted conditional release to more than 500 others. Still, families of incarcerated people urged Cooper to do more as infections rates climbed. More than 4,300 people in North Carolina prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 20 have died 

Dan Forest (R): Forest supports tough-on-crime policies and has questioned the recommendations of public-health officials. Most recently, he has held Trump-style campaign rallies


Doug Burgum (incumbent, R): In the first few months of the pandemic, North Dakota cut its prison population by 19 percent, garnering praise from the Prison Policy Initiative. Cases in the state’s prisons remained low until a recent outbreak at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. 

Shelley Lenz (D): Lenz hasn’t taken a position on this issue.


Spencer Cox (R ): Cox is currently Utah’s lieutenant governor and has said that he stands behind Gov. Gary Herbert. Early in the pandemic, Herbert’s office asked the state Board of Pardons and Parole to consider granting early release to people with 180 days or fewer left to serve. It’s unclear how many people have been released as a result of this request. Last month, the state’s largest prison suffered a surge in infections. 

Christopher Peterson (D): Peterson has not said anything publicly on this issue.


Phil Scott (incumbent, R): Vermont has a tiny in-state prison population, but it sends hundreds of people to out-of-state prisons. In August, nearly every Vermont prisoner at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi tested positive for COVID-19. Scott said he accepted responsibility and should have pushed Tallahatchie prison operator CoreCivic to do more. Last month, Scott opted to renew Vermont’s contract with CoreCivic, but said he would explore options for keeping people in-state, including by building a new prison. 

David Zuckerman (D): While Zuckerman hasn’t said anything specifically about decarceration, he told Vermont Biz that the state spends too much money jailing people on parole violations.


Jim Justice (incumbent, R): On March 25, the ACLU of West Virginia called on Justice to release people with less than a year left to serve. In response, the state’s Department of Public Safety released 70 people, though Justice didn’t play a role in that decision. On May 28, after an outbreak at the Huttonsville Correctional Center, Justice ordered the mandatory testing of all prisoners and corrections staff, a step most states have failed to take.

Ben Salango (D): Salango, a county commissioner, has gone on record opposing the release of people from prisons and jails

➤ In California, most people in county jails retain the right to vote, but the pandemic has made it difficult for volunteers to register eligible voters and make sure they have election materials. Programs like the ACLU’s Unlock the Vote have found ways around these barriers, CalMatters reports

➤ Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts filed an emergency motion on Friday, asking a judge to find that the state’s Department of Correction has failed to comply with a court ruling  requiring it to consider release requests from medically vulnerable prisoners who qualify for home confinement. The lawsuit follows outbreaks at three Massachusetts prisons.

➤ More than 50 people incarcerated in the Western Region Detention Facility in downtown San Diego have tested positive for COVID-19.The federal jail is operated by the GEO Group under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, and is located just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal Bureau of Prisons facility where 197 people tested positive for the virus in September and one man died

On Friday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was reporting 58 active cases of COVID-19 at the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey. Over the weekend, the number of positive infections grew to 166 and now include Troy Wragg, a 38-year-old whose severe epilepsy confines him to a wheelchair. His wife, Megan Hallet Wragg, told Burlington Times reporter George Woolston that  Wragg is too weak to move his wheelchair and the fellow prisoners who normally assist him are also infected with coronavirus.