Condemned to Coronavirus?

On March 9, 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to shame producers and hoarders of hand sanitizer into increasing the availability of the possibly life-saving product. He called a press briefing, announcing the state could introduce its own brand, NYS Clean, if commercial supplies remained inadequate. The state-produced hand sanitizer would even be cheaper than commercial supplies, produced through prison labor.

Cuomo was then, as he is today, desperately trying to draw attention to the looming coronavirus crisis in New York. But the press briefing inadvertently exposed an irony: incarcerated people are among the most vulnerable in this pandemic and, due to the high alcohol content, hand sanitizer is contraband in most detention centers. What is more, the low wages earned by prisoners parallels the conditions of poverty that they and their families often face outside the walls. Cuomo’s press briefing revealed a blind spot: he did not see the prisoners behind his words. He did not connect the people in detention with the epidemic-ripe prison conditions that lay just beneath the surface of his efforts to innovate crisis response. He is far from alone in overlooking populations in detention sites.

Conditions in detention settings across the country – including overcrowding, unsanitary facilities, an aging prison population, poor access to healthcare – magnify exposure to both chronic and infectious diseases. The detained population faces acute risk.

The irony is that attitudes in the US towards prison reform and efforts to legislate change have been making important headway in recent years against mass incarceration. So even while undocumented immigrant detention has exploded in numbers, a startling array of ideological positions has converged on the consensus that mass incarceration is failing

A close up of a sandy desert with prison in distance.
Wyoming Death House Rawlins WY, Stephen Tourlentes.

For decades, advocates for prison reform have been attempting to draw our focus to the broad social harms of mass incarceration. The image above is from one such activist, Stephen Tourlentes, an artist based in Somerville, Massachusetts, whose work documents prisons’ hazy visibility:

We are living in the era of mass incarceration in the U.S.  I discovered this by chance when a new prison was built in the town I grew up in in Illinois.  On the outskirts of town the night sky was punctuated with a brilliant glow that changed my perception of the horizon.

Prison reform advocates, many of them formerly incarcerated people, aim to make prisons visible. An unlikely cast of characters eventually took up the charge. Armed with a host of sometimes contradictory arguments based on human rights, civil rights, fiscal responsibility, and family-centric ideologies, enough state and national political leaders managed to overcome the bipartisan commitment to being ‘tough on crime’ and passed the  FIRST STEP Act through U.S. Congress in 2018. A few states were out in front of the bill, but once it passed, the federal law then helped set into motion additional state-level reforms. It is a start. The overwhelming need to reform and the scale of use of detention in the US — including for undocumented immigrants — mean that more work is necessary. But the changes are underpinned by recognition that mass detention fails as a response to social problems.

The attitude shifts that paved the way for these reforms in ‘normal times,’ should inform today’s crisis response to the acute risks of contagion within detention sites. For both reforms and emergency measures to work, we have to see the larger contours of the problem, including all the various forms of detention that the U.S. deploys. We need to understand the variations, and, perhaps most importantly, engage with detained populations as full members of the social body, not as problems to be managed.

Welcome to Detentionville, USA

Tightly populated areas, where freedom of movement is severely restricted, plagued by inadequate health resources, and where even under ‘normal’ conditions, diseases, both chronic and infectious, run rampant–these are the places where COVID-19 can devastate at significantly higher levels than among the general population. Globally, refugee camps and slums will likely be hard hit. Detention centers share many of the same vulnerabilities. Around the world, incarcerated people recognize their vulnerability and have rioted in response. Deadly prison riots have been reported in  Argentina, Colombia, Lebanon, Scotland, Chad, Italy, Iran, and India.

The largest population of detained people in the world resides in the United States. The geographic dispersion and variations of detention sites in the US work to hide the visibility of this population.

If all these people lived in one place, let’s call it ‘Detentionville,’ it would form a city of around 2.3 million people, roughly the size of Houston, TX, Chicago, IL, or Paris, France. The population is far from uniform: where they live; the cause of their detention; and their economic status, health, age, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Behind these demographic basics are other variations that profoundly impact their abilities to survive in prison or to overcome the factors that got them there: their connections to family and communities both inside and outside detention, education levels, unique skills, and sometimes profound challenges, including addiction and trauma. Their individual circumstances differentiate them from each other and bond them to others in unique ways. We miss this when we speak of the population in generalities.

But the generalities are necessary to understand patterns, scale and scope. Dentionville is a ‘city’ disproportionately composed of poor people of color, held in:

1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

The Whole Pie 2020, Prison Policy Initiative

Conditions in state prisons, where most detained Americans live, can be worlds apart. For instance, a Pew Charitable Trust study found that health care spending per prisoner in fiscal year 2015, amounted to $2,173 in Louisiana and $19,796 in California. Nonetheless, across the country strong trends of overcrowding in detention centers (prisons, jails and immigration centers), negates the possibility for social distancing.

In addition to hand sanitizer being considered contraband, in some settings, people even lack basics like soap and clean water (read this, this, & this for water issues). For example, where I live, Massachusetts (which has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country), a 2016 study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that people in prisons spent their meagre earnings to purchase over 245,000 bars of soap, each prisoner spending $22 a year on this expense for a basic necessity because of inadequate supplies provided by the state.

crowded sleeping conditions - prison bunk beds infirmary
The Marshall Project writes: “Joshua Hall, a dormitory at the California Institution for Men, is built to hold 80 people but currently houses 129. Thirty-four of them are age 70 or older, and many suffer from chronic illnesses, including diabetes, HIV and chronic kidney disease. They sleep in bunk beds and must walk in a narrow space between the bunks to use the bathroom.” Prison Law Office.

In short, key measures that we’ve all been told to implement to limit spread of the disease are hindered or impossible for people in detention. Across the U.S., detention sites threaten to become crucibles of contagion.

We shouldn’t forget the suburbs of Detentionville, people on parole or probation. They face distinct vulnerabilities. For instance, as Kim Dong, a Tufts colleague, found in her research, probationers experience significantly higher food insecurity and poor health outcomes. Access to housing, health, employment [or unemployment benefits] are constant challenges and may well be exacerbated during the current crisis.

Detentionville also includes commuters: the guards, broader prison staff, police, judges, lawyers, and clergy who circulate in and out of its borders every day. It also includes the families and loved ones of detained people, many of whose economic and social burdens are painfully magnified by incarceration, and whose abilities to overcome these burdens may be even more difficult during this crisis.

Whether the goal is to minimize coronavirus transmission across society, to protect detained people who are at heightened risk, or to improve the criminal justice system, we need to learn both to see the larger contours of Detentionville and the extreme variations within it. It is simultaneously national and local. While the affects of detention are not borne equally by all, the pandemic also reveals that we all live near Detentionville.

Life in Detentionville: how do the differences matter?

In the U.S., places of detention include immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers, jails (local authorities), and prisons (state and federal). These fall under various jurisdictions, most are under public authorities, but some are privately run. Even publicly run facilities contract out key functions to the private, for-profit sector: like telecom, food, medicine, and commissary – often offering services or products to prisoners at exorbitant rates. Across these institutions, there are important variations in needs, vulnerabilities, responsible authorities, and other considerations that require address in light of the epidemic.

For instance, immigrants in detention tend to younger (the bulk are in their 20s – 30s, with few over 50), and they also pose little criminal risk to communities, given the lower rates of crime among immigrant populations. The rapid growth of detention centers for this population has magnified issues of over-crowding, poor health, and disastrous treatment of those incarcerated, notably children separated from their families. The system pre-dates the Trump administration, but has expanded outrageously since 2016. This is the area of Detentionville where private companies have most thrived: as reported in Mother Jones, “of the 15 facilities that started housing immigrants in 2017, 12 are run by private prison companies.” In this instance, change needs to come from the Federal government – recognizing how poor the current administration is on this issue, pressure will be needed from other actors, many of whom have been trying thus far with some (but far too few) successes to alter the administration’s policies.

The Trump administration has been reprehensible in its abuse of the human rights of this population. Even as the coronavirus crisis magnified Immigrant and Customs Enforcement continued their aggressive policies of detaining non-criminal undocumented immigrants. Only lately is there talk of slowing incarceration of undocumented immigrants. Releases have not yet occurred, despite Court interventions and pleas from immigrants and advocates.

Detentionville also includes children. While young people may, according to what is currently known about coronavirus, be at lower physical health risk, the mental impacts of separation from their families are compounded given visitation restrictions. Today, there are just over 48,000 youth in various detention environments, the US has been making progress in reducing the numbers of incarcerated (60% drop since 2000), but the numbers remain high and racially skewed. Even in ‘normal’ times, and most detention centers are ill-suited to the needs of young people, often increasing their risk of sexual exploitation, drug abuse, and trauma, with often woeful access to education. Most youth are held for non-violent offenses, and so may be among the populations that can be released – but at an absolute minimum special care needs to be taken so that they can remain in contact with their families and loved ones.

Jails, because of the high turn-over in the population, present an acute risk for transmitting the virus within their walls, and then to communities outside upon release. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that 10.6 million people churn through jails annually. Jails serve as holding centers for pre-trial detention: some will eventually bail themselves out, but many people who are too poor to make bail. The intersection of poverty and jail means that even if people can challenge the charges against them – and including those eventually found innocent – missing work while in jail may mean losing a job and possibly housing. There are many state-based groups dedicated to  helping poor people meet bail (see also this on how the bail industry is blocking efforts), but even these efforts may fall off during an epidemic as payments often have to be made in person. The jail churn has to be slowed by policies addressing bail and pre-trial detention, among other issues.

By far, the largest segment of the Detentionville population lives in prisons. Around 1.3 million people are in state-run institutions, and 226,000 in federal prisons. Recent years’ efforts to reduce the numbers have made modest impact. A big issue today is the fact that America’s prison population is aging. According to research by the Pew Charitable Trust, the reasons for this are “an increase in admissions of older people to prison and the use of longer sentences as a public safety strategy.” This has profound implications for their health. A 2018 study reported that: “…older incarcerated individuals reported high rates of diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular conditions, and liver disease. Mental health problems were common, especially anxiety, fear of desire for death or suicide, and depression.”

For most acute medical issues, such as those sending COVID19 patients to hospitals, detained people will also have to be hospitalized in the same care facilities as the rest of the population.

What can be done?

There is no mayor of Detentionville – only a series of fiefdoms. The country as a whole has suffered from the lackluster federal response; the denizens of Detentionville are subject to widely varying policies and webs of authority. This makes oversight exceptionally difficult.

Everyone right now is facing trade-offs between freedom of movement and public health concerns, and between measures necessary to contain the pandemic and opportunistic implementation of other agendas. Everywhere there is a need for democratic oversight of the balance of competing imperatives and policy overreach. But, as Premal Diar warned in a March 11, 2020 article, detained populations may face an accelerated collapse in the balance of health and legal rights:

Early statements and responses to the coronavirus from our carceral facilities are cause for alarm. Courts are ordering that the temperatures of people in jail be taken so that they can be held back from court if they have fevers. Visitation between those incarcerated and their family members is being rescinded; trials are being delayed. Lawyers are being encouraged to decrease the amount of visits they make to see clients who are incarcerated, and prisons are putting people on lockdown—locking them inside their cells, sometimes in solitary confinement.


In addition to the grave health concerns, these restrictive responses endanger the rights of people in jails and prisons to access the system that would allow for their cases to move forward, for resolution and closure, for the vindication of rights, and potentially for their freedom. In many cases, they jeopardize the system’s compliance with clear law about when incarcerated people need to be seen and heard by courts. We have such laws for good reason: People should not languish in jails or prisons without being able to access the courts that can hear—and potentially release—them. If incarcerated people are not brought to court, don’t get meaningful visits with their attorneys, and don’t have their cases heard, this is exactly what will happen.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The consensus on prison reform can be advanced during this crisis. Mass incarceration has not worked: sentences are too harsh, criminal ‘justice’ is entangled with poverty and racial injustice. And despite the fact that most detained people will return to the general population, the system does not prioritize making returns successful.

Contagion means we cannot turn a blind eye to any portion of the population. Releasing people from detention is a logical policy. Around the world, countries have begun to take such measures (including a few with otherwise questionable human rights records): Iran, Australia, Canada, Germany, Britain, Poland, and Italy. Ethiopia has done the same and similar calls for action are echoing across Africa. In the U.S., some states have begun prison releases or are reportedly considering the policy, among them New York, New Jersey, California, Ohio, and some cities have done the same for jails, like New York City and Detroit. In many of these cities, crimes rates have dropped significantly during this crisis, except for domestic violence. The Prison Policy Initiative maintains a site that tracks coronavirus responses, and notes that jails have thus far done better than prisons.

Time is pressing – outbreaks inside the walls have already been reported.

All measures need to be undertaken with care to distinct individual circumstances. We must learn to see beyond the city limits of Detentionville, to the diversity of the population that resides there.

Releases should certainly be implemented where they can. This includes people who remain in detention solely because they are too poor to afford bail should be released; people incarcerated due to technical violations of parole or probation; people with asthma, cancer, lung diseases, and who are immunocompromised; those who are eligible for medical parole; among others (see how Massachusetts legislators are trying to advance this goal). And certainly undocumented immigrants.

But the ‘success’ of a release program hinges on people being able to find adequate housing, have a sustainable income and access to a medical health system. If someone is released on medical parole, are there nursing homes or other facilities that will accept them? The difficulties faced by people released from prison are today infinitely more complicated.

Take one example: if you’ve been in prison a long time, you won’t have an id and you may not have a place to live. The process of getting a state-issued id requires showing up in person. Many states have responsibly taken measures to limit fact-to-face transactions at state offices (like Massachusetts); and these have understandably limited public access. If you don’t have an id, it is difficult to do much of anything, let alone apply for housing or work. Where I live, there has been a city order to stop all evictions, which is good, but also to stop showing people new apartments. And there is very little work right now. A person exiting from detention does not simply transform overnight into fully fledged freedom and self-reliance. This is not reason to maintain them in detention, but must be addressed as part of their real concerns.

For people who are not released, deepening social isolation is not a cure. They need human engagement, much as we all do. Many detention sites around the country have canceled visits and all programming – including educational opportunities for everyone (participation in which is often required if someone wants to succeed before a parole board), and is especially problematic for detained youth. There are ways to mitigate the psychological impacts of these measures. To this end, fees for phone and video calls should be reduced if not erased altogether in this environment. (See the below list for organizations with additional recommendations and research).

As the coronavirus toll continues to mount, and its secondary impacts on society and the economy intensify social distress, the people who live and work within detention centers are acutely at risk. The virus makes clear: the walls that separate Detentionville from the rest of us are equal parts illusion and physical reality. There are many things that can be done to minimize the risks for detained people, and in so doing, to re-engage with them as members of our communities. It’s well past time to make them happen at scale.

Additional Resources:

The below organizations offer pathways to more information, including on a state-by-state level.

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. They’ve created a COVID-19 Action page with materials and resources created by/for or that are meaningful for higher education in prison programs from across the United States.

Justice Management Institute has created a checklist for agencies and ogranizations to consider as they seek to mitigate the impacts of coronavirus. It includes recommendations related to arrest, prosecution, supervision, courts and jail.

The Marshall Project provides reporting on criminal justice issues, including collating news from across the country.

The Prison Policy Initiative has advocated for five key policy changes and charted how U.S. various authorities are already implementing these: (1) releases; (2) reducing jail admittances; (3) limiting unnecessary check-ins and visits to offices for people on parole, probation, or on registries; (4) eliminating medical co-pays for prisoners; and (5) reduce the cost of phone and video calls.

The Vera Institute of Justice which focuses on ending mass incarceration, has produced coronavirus guidance tailored for different actors within the immigration and criminal justice sectors, including: immigration system actors; jails, prisons, immigration detention and youth facilities; police and law enforcement; Rikers Island; parole, probation and clemency; prosecutors, defenders and courts; rural justice systems; and youth agencies.

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

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