Tracking COVID-19 in Detention

Note: image courtesy of Stephen Tourlentes, a Somerville, MA-based artist whose work aims to make detention sites visible. Many American detention sites are located at the outskirts of cities, in rural areas, or anonymously hidden away within city borders, Tourlentes’ work captures their presence through his photography of the night glow they produce. As he notes, “Never going dark these institutions permeate beyond their physical boundaries. This encroachment symbolizes a powerful tension that implicates the very nature of social priorities.” This tension is acutely heightened during the COVID 19 crisis.

As is now well known, COVID -19 spreads through close contact, disproportionately impacting older people and those with pre-existing health vulnerabilities. Places where people cannot enact social distancing experienced significantly higher rates of infection than among the general public. One of the contexts where people were at elevated risk is detention.

Nowhere is magnitude of challenge nor diversity of responses more apparent than in the United States. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world: 698 per 100,000. This number includes 2.3 million people, a population that is aging, and is disproportionately composed of poor, African American and Hispanic people. A challenge for coherent and consistent policymaking, an especially acute issue during a pandemic, is the diverse authorities that govern how people in detention should be treated. This includes Federal prisons, ICE detention centers, state prisons, juvenile detention centers, county-level jails (which often house ICE detainees), as well as work release programs, parole offices, and other facilities.

Detention is not separate from the ‘rest’ of America: it exists in most counties, every state and across the country. Prison walls do not form impermeable barriers: lawyers, judges, police, bailiffs, parole boards, officers, facility guards (corrections officers), medical staff, social workers, teachers, volunteers, and others cross the borders into and out of detention centers daily. The communities on the inside are not self-contained, they include children, spouses, parents, friends and loved ones of those incarcerated. The pandemic revealed how the health of communities of people inside are tied to those on the outside. Even more, the pandemic diagnosed the American carceral system: exposing the gaping chasms in the criminal justice system.

This program includes:

Snapshots of the first three months of the pandemic

This data-gathering and analysis project tracked the emergence of COVID-19 in detention settings within six states (Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, California, Massachusetts, and New York) from March – June 2020. It also analyzed deaths among people incarcerated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (March to July 2020) and conditions in women’s prisons nationwide (March to October 2020). The project provides a unique glimpse of early trends.

In-depth study of COVID response in Massachusetts (March 2020 – March 2021).

This ongoing research 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.


Rally at Chowchilla Valley State Prison for Women, Daniel Arauz (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Forgotten Victims?: Women and COVID-19 Behind Bars

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.

96 Deaths in Detention: a view of COVID-19 in the Federal Bureau of Prisons as captured in death notices

The paper analyzes the were 96 COVID-19 related deaths in 22 prisons managed by the BOP between March 28 and July 31, 2020. These “death notices,” provide stark details about response to COVID-19 in Federal prisons.

San Quentin, CA Death House, Stephen Tourlentes

Condemned to Coronavirus?

Mass incarceration has not worked: sentences are too harsh, criminal ‘justice’ is entangled with poverty and racial injustice. This essay asks, can the consensus on prison reform can be advanced during the COVID -19 crisis?