[Washington, DC – March 12, 2020] As the world, and the United States, comes to terms with the incredible rate at which coronavirus infections are increasing, cities and states are taking significant steps to control the rate of transmission. Steps we never would have imagined a month ago. Schools and universities are being closed, large events like political rallies are being canceled and communities are being isolated, like in Westchester, New York. Perhaps, most importantly, to limit the spread of the disease anyone who feels ill is being asked to get tested and self-isolate.

But there is a population who cannot take basic precautions against getting the virus or giving it to others – washing hands regularly, staying away from groups of people, keeping a 6-foot area between themselves and others, or being sure to routinely disinfect surfaces. On the outside we’re scrambling to find places to buy hand sanitizer, on the inside, in jails, prisons and youth correctional facilities, it’s considered contraband.

“People who are incarcerated can do little to nothing to protect themselves if the virus enters a facility,” said Justice Policy Institute (JPI) Executive Director and former youth corrections’ administrator Marc Schindler. “We know health care facilities, providers and resources around the world are being taxed beyond capacity. On the inside, we don’t know who, if anybody, is being tested. Health care in prisons and jails is often below a common standard of care – it is not going to improve in the coming weeks and months to deal with this virus.” 

According to the CDC, “older adults and people with heart disease, diabetes and lung disease are at higher risk for serious illness.” There are many people with these risk factors inside our jails and prisons. The CDC is warning people to “avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation if there are people in the crowd who are sick.” That simply isn’t an option for people who are incarcerated.

Being incarcerated takes a significant toll on the body; people who are incarcerated are considered “geriatric” at 55 or 60 years old, depending on the state. There are thousands of geriatric people in state prisons, with the population of incarcerated people aged 55 and over having quadrupled from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013. “People who are inside have friends, families and loved ones waiting for them to come home. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done; their lives matter too,” said JPI State Based Strategist Keith Wallington. “Governors and corrections’ departments should use their authority to proactively reduce the prison population. There are a significant number of low risk people in prison, particularly older people that have incredibly low risk of recidivism – releasing them will relieve strain on correctional facilities and staff, as well as slow the rate of spread of the virus.”

As the death toll in nursing homes in Washington State continues to rise, and people are urging family members not to visit elderly relatives in nursing homes, American Health Care Association President Mark Parkinson said, “the grim reality is that, for the elderly, Covid-19 is almost a perfect killing machine.”

“My greatest fear is that many of our men and women who are incarcerated are housed on top of each other within the housing units,” said JPI Associate Tyrone Walker. “I know from my own experience being incarcerated that people will be laying in those cells, especially during an emergency lock down – you have people living with you in 2, 3, 4, 6, or 8 men/women cells and pods. Who will be monitoring those who may have been laying there for days without any medical attention.”

The Justice Policy Institute supports the recommendations of our colleagues at the Prison Policy Initiative to slow the spread of the virus among the incarcerated population, including:

  • Release medically vulnerable and older incarcerated people.
  • End imprisonment for technical parole and probation violations, such as breaking a curfew or failing a drug test.
  • Stop charging copays for medical care in prisons.
  • Lower jail admissions
  • Reduce unnecessary probation and parole meetings.




The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is dedicated to ending the incarceration generation by reducing reliance on the justice system and using incarceration only as a last resort.