California COVID-19 in detention

Background on Data | Federal | State Prisons | County Jails | ICE

(Updated June 12, 2020)


In this case study, you will find data and information about the outbreak of COVID-19 in places of detention in California: federal prisons, state prisons, ICE detention centers, and county jails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, in 2018, “239,000 of California’s residents [were] locked up in various kinds of facilities,” with 131,000 people in state prisons, 82,000 in local jails, 6,700 in youth confinement, 3,600 in involuntary commitment, 16,000 in federal prisons and an additional 90,000 on parole and 236,000 on probation.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), by May 31,  1,769 incarcerated people had tested positive (with 55 active and 1,714 recovered), and 12 incarcerated people had died at facilities in California.

Among people incarcerated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), by June 10, 2020:

  • 14 deaths: 13 at the California Institution for Men (CIM) facility in  and one at the California Institute for Women (CIW).
  • 2430 active cases, and 661 resolved cases. 43 people released while testing positive.

One correction officer at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Danny Mendoza, died on June 1, after contracting COVID-19. Additionally, 496 staff tested positive, of whom, 233 recovered and returned to work.  Among this number are large clusters at a few facilities:

  • 60 staff at Avenal State Prison (ASP)
  • 75 at California Institute for Men (CIM)
  • 30 California Rehabilitation Center (CRC)
  • 47 at California State Prison, Los Angeles County
  • 32 at Centinela State Prison (CEN)
  • 44 at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP)
  • 40 Ironwood State Prison (ISP)

As seen in other states, California’s COVID rates within correctional facilities rose more rapidly than the general state population. The below graph, from an article by Sam Levin in The Guardian on May 20th, illustrates this trend.

Graph 1.1

Graph originally appeared onMay 20, 2020 in The Guardian. Available at:

Background on Data

While California’s government and CDCR demonstrated a rapid response to the initial rise in cases by making available state prison COVID-19 tracking data and passing orders for large-scale releases from overcrowded prisons and jails, a more nuanced search reveals vast discrepancies in testing and relief measures. Overall, the response was insufficient to counter the effects of a pandemic in a chronically overcrowded and decentralized mass incarceration system. As of April 15th, state prisons were still at 130% capacity with over 110,000 inmates.

In addition, the same transparency that allows us to study COVID-19 trends within CDCR facilities is not matched when it comes to federal prisons, jails, and ICE detention centers. The testing, disease burden, and general conditions within these sites are disproportionately underreported, and even numbers between different media sources and lawsuits show inconsistencies. These reflect the lack of quality standards when it comes to criminal justice coverage, contributing to what Kerry Meyers from the Marshall Project describes as “the public’s misunderstanding of the system and those caught up in it.”

Finally, testing within CDCR facilities continues to grow exponentially and has now surpassed testing rates for the broader state population. However, closer examination of testing distribution shows that allocation of testing was limited to specific sites. These particular sites within California demonstrate how testing, though increasing in numbers, was only “catching up” to significant outbreaks within facilities, rather than acting as preventative measures for all incarcerated people.

Federal Prisons

COVID-19 has – and continues to – run rampant in federal prisons. In California, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversees upwards of 145,000 detainees, most of which are housed in BOP-managed institutions (with the remainder detained in community-based facilities managed by outside vendors).

As of May 31, federal detainees in California accounted for 1,769 out of the national total of 5,234 positive cases among incarcerated people (with 55 active and 1,714 recovered); and 12 out of 67 deaths of incarcerated people.

Many of California’s – and indeed, the nation’s – cases are concentrated in two facilities: Lompoc FCC and Terminal Island FCI. On May 9th, the Los Angeles Times reported that FCI Lompoc (one of two facilities at Lompoc FCC) and Terminal Island FCI “…account for about 47% of all the federal inmates who have tested positive nationwide.”

According to the BOP, there are 10 federal prison facilities in the state of California: Atwater USP, Dublin FCI, Herlong FCI, Lompoc FCC, Los Angeles MDC, Mendota FCI, San Diego MCC, Taft CI, Terminal Island FCI, Victorville FCC. It is worth noting that some of these facilities are complexes which contain more than one facility; for example, Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) is a complex which consists of Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) Lompoc and United States Penitentiary (USP) Lompoc (For a comprehensive guide to the BOP’s abbreviations, please see Appendix C of the BOP’s Legal Resource Guide).

The below table demonstrates the data from the BOP on COVID-19 in California federal facilities as of June 6th, 2020. Frequently updated data for California and other states can be found through the BOP.

Table 1.1

Facility Incarcerated Person+  Staff Positive Incarcerated Person Deaths Staff Deaths Incarcerated Person Recovered Staff Recovered City
Behavioral Systems Southwest, Inc. (RRC) 1


0 0 0 0 0 Los Angeles
Brawley RRC (RRC) 3 0 0 0 0 0 Brawley
Dublin FCI 0 1 0 0 0 0 Dublin
GEO Reentry of Alaska, Inc. (RRC) 0 0 0 0 1 0 Oakland
GEO-Taylor St. Facility (RRC) 3 0 0 0 1 0 San Francisco
JL Santa Rita Jail (RRC) 0 0 0 0 1 0 Dublin
Lompoc FCI 1 7 2 0 893 11 Lompoc
Lompoc USP 15 5 2 0 157 19 Lompoc
Los Angeles MDC 1 0 0 0 0 1 Los Angeles
Terminal Island FCI 25 4 9 0 664 13 San Pedro

Data: Bureau of Prisons. Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.

The BOP only reports on active positive cases and does not provide any information about testing. Further, BOP has only irregularly reports on privately managed facilities that it contracts with. Their information includes other discrepancies that frustrate efforts to understand the full picture of infections among the federally incarcerated population. For example: on May 20th, the BOP reported an incarcerated person who tested positive at Correctional Alternatives, Inc. (RRC) in San Diego. This facility, is also known as CAI-Oceanview, and is listed by different names in different places. 

The BOP has received criticism for the actions and policies it has undertaken at several of its facilities in California during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taft Correctional Institute (CI), a privately-owned facility in Kern County, was scheduled to close this spring (a decision that was made in Fall 2019); despite calls for the facility to remain open for the duration of the pandemic, it “…closed its doors on April 30 after sending hundreds of uninfected prisoners to coronavirus hot spots across the country.” The BOP delayed the closure from March to April “in the hopes of finding an alternative to closure,” but ultimately shut down the facility. This decision, and the resulting transfer of upwards of 1,000 detainees from a facility with no reported cases, was met with serious and persistent criticism, for example by California Congressman Kevin McCarthy.

The BOP has also been subject to a Complaint filed through the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Complaint criticizes the BOP’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and explains, “The agency’s actions described herein are proliferating the spread of a known and deadly contagion both within our prison system and to our surrounding communities. The agency’s actions and inactions are expected to result in death and severe health complications and/or possible life-long disabilities.” Among the affected sites listed in the Complaint are 9 facilities in California.

The BOP is also the subject of two class-action lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). These lawsuits allege that the extensive and fatal COVID-19 outbreaks at Lompoc FCC and Terminal Island FCI resulted from “deliberate indifference” and failure “to take preventative measures”: “the lawsuits, which name the prisons’ wardens, as well as Michael Carvajal, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, claim that officials at both facilities allowed the virus to spread by failing to provide clean environments, basic sanitary supplies and personal protective equipment to prisoners and staff.” The lawsuits criticize the failure of the BOP to release prisoners (especially those with underlying health conditions) to home confinement, despite legal directives, and contend that at least two of the detainees who died due to COVID-19 at Terminal Island – a facility which “specializes in housing prisoners who need long-term medical or mental health care” – “should have been on the shortlist to be released into home confinement per the directive.”

State Prisons

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) launched a COVID-19 tracker on March 25th at which point 167 detainees had been tested, 1 of whom tested positive. The CDCR’s tracker has produced some of the most robust and up-to-date data on COVID in detention facilities that we have encountered on a national level. The  tracker monitors cases of and testing for COVID in state prisons among the incarcerated population and documents positive COVID cases among CDCR and California Correctional Healthcare Services (CCHS) employees. At its onset, the CDCR tracker reported “testing and case data statewide by institution”; it has been updated several times since then. On May 5th, the web site expanded the tracker to include – among other updates – the ability to compare the rates of testing and cases at specific CDCR facilities with the rates of testing and cases among the entire CDCR population, the state of California, and the U.S. Please visit “Population COVID-19 Tracking” on the CDCR’s website to engage with the reported data.

As of May 31st, the CDCR reported a total of 1,688 confirmed positive cases among the incarcerated population. Reported caseloads within facilities have shown sweeping changes over the last two weeks with a large increase in the number of tests and distribution of testing across sites. Current confirmed cases are reported at 10 of the CDCR’s 35 facilities: Avenal State Prison; California Institution for Men; Chuckawalla Valley State Prison; California Institution for Women; California State Prison, LA County; Centinela State Prison; California City Correctional Facility; California Men’s Colony; California State Prison Corocan; and Sierra Conservation Center.

Case Studies: CIM and ASP

Two of the facilities with the highest confirmed COVID-19 cases as of May 31, 2020, were California Institute for Men (CIM), and Avenal State Prison (ASP). However, the disease burden in these centers were revealed in very different ways as a result of testing. CIM, which is the site accountable for all COVID-19-related deaths within the CDCR, was by far the only site to receive robust testing (and therefore reporting of positive cases) in the early months of COVID-19. Testing at ASP started yielding positive results only on May 12th, 2020, and quickly revealed a higher infection rate than CIM.

As of May 31st, CIM has reported 659 confirmed cases and all 9 deaths within CDCR facilities. Prior to mid-May, CIM Chico accounted for 2650 (44.5%) of the 5950 tests that have been administered within all California DOC facilities. This is reflected in the fact that their testing per 1,000 of incarcerated individuals in CIM during this time was 867.6, compared to 27.0 per 1,000 of the general CA facility testing rate (Figure AAA). Therefore, while the CDCR demonstrated a rapid increase in testing rates within their facilities, they were concentrated within a single facility that had already demonstrated high rates of COVID cases. 

Graph 1.2

Graph 1.2: When tracking tests administered over time, those administered at CIM Chino compose almost half (44.5%) of all tests administered within CDCR facilities. Day 0 is March 31st, 2020, tracked to May 15th, 2020. Data: CDCR; Table: Saki Kitadai, 2020.

Over the last two weeks of May, CDCR more than doubled the number of incarcerated people it tested: from 7157 on May 20th, to 15,157 by May 31st. 

Increased testing detected COVID-19 in facilities that until this point had reported low infection rates. Avenal State Prison (ASP), which had only reported 102 cases as of May 20th with a testing rate of 31.3, surpassed CIM with 593 confirmed cases on May 31st despite a testing rate of only 278.7, or less than a third, of the testing rates achieved at CIM.

The rapid emergence of these other CDCR sites with higher-than-expected disease burden exposes how the testing within CDCR facilities, while better reported than in other states, is still insufficient in developing an accurate account of outbreaks within institutions. This suggests that the CDCR is not yet implementing a preventive testing strategy within these facilities. A second on-going concern is the CDCR’s announcement on May 28th that they have “nearly 700 individuals in dorm housing at CIM at potentially high risk for COVID-19 complications” that will be “relocated to other institutions in the state in small cohorts.” There was no further information provided on whether these individuals would be tested, isolated, or tracked for symptoms before upon arrival to the new facilities, but transfers between sites in the midst of newly reported high disease burden in other CDCR facilities could certainly add to the complexity of tracking future COVID-19 outbreaks.

County level: Jails

Apart from the population monitoring through the Jail Profile Survey (JPS) issued by the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), there is very limited documentation of COVID-19 in California’s jails. The lack of available information contrasts starkly with the robust and up-to-date data on state prisons in the CDCR COVID tracker.

The BSCC has issued the (JPS) “to track corona-virus related impacts for local detention systems”; this tool reports data about 118 facilities in 56 of California’s 58 counties. The JPS documents average daily population (ADP), bookings, releases, and estimated releases related to COVID-19 on the county and state level. Data collection began April 13th, 2020 (for the week of April 5th). Below are graphs of the statewide data, courtesy of the BSCC. Please see the JPS for county-specific data.

Graphs 1.3, 1.4 , 1.5, 1.6

Figure 5: Statewide ADP and Bookings, courtesy of BSCC JPS.
Graphs: Statewide Releases and Estimated Releases Related to COVID-19, courtesy of BSCC JPS. Available at:

The below information on positive COVID -19 cases in CA jails was gathered from news/media sources and, in some cases, reports from the County Sheriff’s Offices. The table reflects the date of the most recent data (as of May 31). As is clear in the table, in some counties, there have not been publicly available updates since March. The Average Daily Population (ADP), taken from the JPS, corresponds to the extent possible with the date of last available data (e.g. the most recent data from Contra Costa County was released on May 5th, so the ADP from the week of May 2nd was used). It should be noted that the ADP is a population report for all jail facilities in the county, and, in some counties, COVID-19 data is only available for certain facilities. So, while the ADP accurately reflects the jail populations, the number of COVID cases, and the percentage of population that has been infected is likely underreported.

Table 1.2

County Date Average Daily Population (ADP) Cumulative– Detained people + Active– Detained people +  Confirmed No Cases
Alameda 31-May 1,805 57 2 X
Colusa 25-Mar 68 X X Yes
Contra Costa 5-May 694 1 X X
El Dorado 16-Mar 393 X X Yes
Fresno 14-Apr 2,615 1 X X
Glenn 13-Mar 102 X X Yes
Humboldt 17-Apr 252 X X Yes
Imperial 5-May 222 10 X X
Kern 17-Apr 1,596 9 X X
Lake 8-May 200 1 0 X
Los Angeles 31-May 12,010 1477 829 X
Marin 3-Apr 272 X X Yes
Modoc 31-May 26 X X Yes
Monterey 23-Mar 876 X X Yes
Napa 24-Mar 239 X X Yes
Orange 31-May 3,167 377 X X
Riverside 15-May 3,128 190 56 X
Sacramento 7-May 2,399 1 0 X
San Bernardino 9-May 4,798 2 X X
San Diego 28-May 3,924 unspecified 3 X
San Francisco 12-May 713 4 2 X
San Joaquin ~8-May 1,148 X X Yes
San Luis Obispo 14-Apr 398 X X Yes
San Mateo 23-Apr 551 X X Yes
Santa Barbara 18-Apr 601 1 X X
Santa Clara 5-May 2,571 3 2 X
Shasta 17-Apr 366 X X Yes
Solano 13-Mar 697 X X Yes
Sonoma 19-Apr 665 X X Yes
Stanislaus 12-Apr 1,253 X X Yes
Tuolumne 26-Mar 145 X X Yes
Ventura 14-Apr 1,144 X X Yes
Yolo 13-Mar 286 X X Yes

Data: Media and County government sources. Table: Adriana Papas 2020.

In several counties, the extent of COVID-19 in the jails appears to correlate with the situation within the local community. For example, there have been no confirmed cases within Modoc County Jail, but there have been no positive cases in all of Modoc County. In other counties, such as Los Angeles and Riverside, there is a significant discrepancy between the COVID-19 infection rates inside and outside of county jail facilities.

Graph 1.7

Data: Los Angeles County; Graph: Adriana Pappas.

The Los Angeles County jail system has the largest COVID-19 outbreak among California counties. Los Angeles County was sued in late April for “failing to protect jail inmates from the threat of the coronavirus.” As of May 31st, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported 1,477 cumulative positive COVID-19 tests among detained people. Given the custody population of 12,018, the 1,477 positive cases indicate an infection rate of approximately 12%.

In contrast, LA County has reported an infection rate of less than 1% (with 51,562 cumulative confirmed cases as of May 30th out of a total population of 10,040,000). Though it is difficult to get an exact infection rate for comparison due to a number of constantly changing variables (for example, the jail population fluctuates daily), the discrepancy between the estimated infection rates inside the jail and within the county as a whole is significant.

Facilities in Riverside County has also been highly impacted. An emergency motion was filed on April 6th over the conditions in Riverside County jails; “civil rights advocates have described the agency’s efforts to protect people who live and work in the jails as woefully inadequate.” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco initially refused to release detained people and in a news briefing stated, “If you don’t wanna catch this virus while you’re in custody, don’t break the law.”

Riverside County has historically struggled with overcrowding issues. During the week of February 29th, Riverside county’s five county jail facilities housed an average daily population (ADP) of 3,823 detainees. The jail population decreased steadily throughout the course of the pandemic, and by the week of May 30th, the ADP was 3,077 detainees. As of May 15th, a total of 190 detained people at Riverside county jail facilities tested positive for COVID-19.

The scale of infection at Riverside facilities demonstrates the potential for wide-spread infection in jails, at rates that soar far beyond those of the general population.

There is a marked discrepancy between infection rates for Riverside residents inside and outside of jail. As of April 29th, “…in Riverside County, 144 out of about 3,240 inmates [had] tested positive for COVID-19…At 4,186 positive tests per 100,000 individuals, inmates in county custody are about 26 times more likely to contract the virus than Riverside County residents” Infection rates are drastically higher for people who are behind bars; in Riverside, this is likely due to the conditions within the jails (documented above) which heighten the likelihood of infection.

In order to contextualize the COVID-19 outbreaks in California jails, it is important to understand the history of overpopulation in California’s detention systems. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that California’s state prisons were overcrowded to such an extent that the conditions within the prisons “…violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” In the wake of this decision and later voter approval of Propositions 36 and 47 in 2014, California undertook a program of realignment, which “…[shifted] thousands of offenders convicted of nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex-related offenses from the overcrowded prisons to the state’s county jails.” The county jails were designed as short-term facilities with a maximum jail sentence of one year. After realignment, jails began to detain inmates for significantly longer sentences. The decrease in state prison population achieved by an increased strain on county jails.

Realignment caused an immediate surge in jail populations from 2011 on: “in September 2014, county jails housed 82,681 inmates, up 15 percent from September 2011.” There are concerns that California’s jails “lack adequate health care.” One impact was the rising death rate among people detained in county jails.

Beginning in 2014, counties across California undertook large-scale release efforts to address overcrowding. The passage of Proposition 47, which reclassified many offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, also helped decrease jail populations. However, another response to overcrowding was to add more detention capacity. As of 2016, “at least 40 California counties have either completed or are planning jail construction projects,” which translated into “nearly 10,000 new jail cells…according to data from the Board of State and Community Corrections.”

Overcrowding remained an issue in 2020 as the COVID-19 outbreak began. Although county sheriffs across California endeavored to decrease county jail populations in preparation for, and in response to, COVID-19 outbreaks, the sweeping consequences of the realignment movement likely impacted the spread of COVID-19 in California county jails.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

Data regarding COVID cases within ICE detention centers is limited across the country. California is no different, despite being home to one of the worst-confirmed cases within an ICE detention center.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, first reported a positive test among its detained population on April 6th. One month later, on May 6th, it became the site of the first known COVID-19-related death within an ICE facility. By that time, there were 132 detained people who tested positive. By month’s end, Otay Mesa was home to largest COVID-19 outbreak within an ICE detention center: with 21 people reported actively infected, 1 death, and 160 people recovered. Among staff by May 31, 11 people were infected.

The ICE website provides information on court ordered judicial release within select “field offices”, with updates to this table that details number of court-ordered releases for those with or without criminal charges or convictions. The data for California according to this ICE table as of May 28th is shown below.

Table 1.3

Field Office Number of
releases of individuals
with criminal charges
or convictions
Los Angeles 56 47
San Diego 91 12
San Francisco 55 53
CA total 202 112

Data: ICE website data for number of detained people released from California ICE facilities after court order as of May 28th, 2020.  Table: Saki Kitadai 2020.


Student researchers on this case study include Adriana Pappas, who is affiliated with the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College, and Saki Kitadai (TUSM).

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