Tracking COVID-19 in Detention

What did the pandemic in prisons reveal about mass incarceration?

Around the globe, people held in sites of detention were at elevated risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. Nowhere was this risk greater than in the U.S., which is home to 25% of the world’s total population of incarcerated people. Large-scale COVID outbreaks across the American detention system (including jails, youth detention centers, immigration detention, local jails, state prisons and Federal prisons) became recurrent headline news throughout the height of the pandemic.

The U.S. prison system is shocking not only in its scale, but also in its selectivity. That is, how it has specifically been deployed against racial and ethnic minorities, with young Black men as primary targets. The American prison population ballooned from the 1970s and into the second decade of the 2000s. After that point, it has slowly begun to decrease, primarily due to changes in policies in states with the large populations of incarcerated people, like New York and California. Reforms have begun to unevenly take hold elsewhere as well, but none significant enough to make serious reductions in the number of people in prison.

This research program begins in this era of reform and seeks to document how the pandemic behind bars impacted discussion about reforming — or abolishing — mass incarceration. It has two primary goals. First, it seeks to document what happened behind bars during the pandemic. Drawing on data and policies produced by prison systems, news coverage, and firsthand testimony of people inside prisons and advocates for change, it tells stories of the pandemic in prison. Second, it asks whether the pandemic has made any lasting impacts on policy and activist debates about the future of the American carceral system

Prison walls do not form impermeable barriers: lawyers, judges, police, parole boards/officers, corrections officers, medical staff, social workers, teachers, people with loved ones inside, volunteers, and others cross the borders into and out of detention centers daily. The populations ‘inside’ are not self-contained, they are tied to communities — children, spouses, parents, friends and loved ones — on the ‘outside.’ The pandemic revealed how the health of communities of people inside are tied to those on the outside, and vice versa. Even more, the pandemic diagnosed the American carceral system: exposing the gaping chasms within how ‘justice’ is defined and practiced, and what expertise is needed to build a different future.



In-depth study of COVID response in Massachusetts’ prisons (March 2020 – March 2021) (expected 2024), by Bridget Conley. This ongoing, book-length research project examines the impact of COVID-19 in prisons in Massachusetts. Drawing on interviews, data and official documents, it presents a multi-perspectival history of COVID-19 in the state’s prison system.


What Prison Abolition Has to Do With International Policy (Inkstick, May 3, 2023) by Bridget Conley and B. Arneson.

Occasional Papers

Ending Solitary Isolation: Is it in reach in Massachusetts? (January 2022) By Bridget Conley.

Forgotten Victims?: Women and COVID-19 Behind Bars (November 2020). By Amaia Elorza Arregi, Bridget Conley, Matthew Siegel, and Arlyss Herzig.

96 Deaths in Detention: a view of COVID-19 in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (August 2020). By Bridget Conley and Matthew Siegel.

Note: image courtesy of Stephen Tourlentes, a Somerville, MA-based artist whose work aims to make detention sites visible.