Snapshots of the early pandemic in U.S. prisons

Beginning in early April 2020, a group of Tufts-affiliated researchers began work with the World Peace Foundation to track COVID 19 in places of detention in the United States. The group included graduate students from Fletcher and the Medical School, undergraduates, alumni and faculty.

Lacking coherent and benchmarked policies to govern COVID response, responses varied across state, federal and local jurisdictions, and often between specific prisons and jails. Nonetheless, general patterns emerged, exposing the cruelties of mass incarceration with intensified, system-wide acute risk.

Infection rates in some places of detention soared well beyond that of the general public. In many places, these heightened rates included not only people in detention, but frequently the corrections officers, medical personnel, and other staff who work in prisons, jails and other centers. The most commonly used response measure was lockdowns: which, in places of detention, often means severe restrictions on movement. Across many detention centers, there was inadequate attention to preventative measures (including decarceration, masks, other forms of personal protective equipment, and cleaning supplies), low rates of testing, reductions in access to educational, behavioral, and spiritual programming, a collapse in the quality of food and general medical care. The psychological and long-term health burdens of the pandemic behind bars are yet to be accounted for, but it is clear that across the country, over 2,000 incarcerated and detained people have died unnecessarily.

Early response to the pandemic, tracked in this research, helps us understand why. The research drew on work undertaken by advocates, state and federal officials, and journalists across the country; requests that the team filed for access to public records; and new analysis of publicly released information.


Snapshots in time (March – June 2020). Researchers began by tracking information about the spread of the virus within prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and juvenile facilities in the states of Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Louisiana, California, and Washington. The data presents a snapshot of the early phase of the pandemic, when data was just beginning to emerge about the scale of infection within the country’s various carceral institutions.

Occasional papers 

Forgotten Victims?: Women and COVID-19 Behind Bars,” (World Peace Foundation Occasional Paper #26, November 2020)by Amaia Elorza Arregi, Bridget Conley, Matthew Siegel, and Arlyss Herzig. COVID-19 and the policies designed to counter it in American prisons pose distinct medical, emotional, psychological, and economic threats for incarcerated women and their families. Drawing on analysis of 138 women’s state and federal prisons across the United States, coupled with review of research on women’s prisons, and detailed profiles of the hardest hit facilities with insights from the women incarcerated inside them, this paper provides unique insight on the impacts of COVID-19 behind bars. Learn more.

“96 Deaths in Detention: a view of COVID-19 in the Federal Bureau of Prisons as captured in death notices” (World Peace Foundation Occasional Paper 23, August 26, 2020), by Bridget Conley and Matthew Siegel. Between March 28 and July 31,2020, there were 96 COVID-19 related deaths in 22 prisons managed by the BOP. The paper analyzes all 96 press releases issued by the BOP for each of these COVID-19 related deaths. The press releases, what we are calling “death notices,” provide stark details about the person and key dates in the progression of the virus. Learn more.

Research Team

  • Bridget Conley, Research Director, WPF and Associate Professor, The Fletcher School
  • Sofie Hodara, Lecturer, School of the Museum of Fine Arts
  • Amaia Elorza Arregi, Research Assistant, WPF and The Fletcher School, MALD, 2021
  • Roshni Babal, School of Arts and Sciences, BS 2020
  • Evelyn Bellew, School of Arts and Sciences, BA 2019
  • Caroline Blanton, School of Arts & Sciences, BA 2021
  • Grace Fagan, School of Arts and Sciences, BS 2021
  • Arlyss Herzig, School of Arts and Science, BA 2023
  • Saki Kitadai, Tufts University School of Medicine, MD 2021
  • Alex Lein, School of Arts and Sciences, BA 2021
  • Adriana Pappas, School of Arts and Sciences, BA 2022
  • Elizabeth Shelbred, School of Arts and Sciences, BA 2022
  • Matthew Siegel, School of Arts and Science, BS 2022
  • Nadiezhda Slater, School of Arts and Sciences, BA, 2021 

We also wish to acknowledge the support of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT). Most of the student researchers volunteered through TUPIT, and Prof. Conley is an affiliated faculty member of the program.

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