Tracking COVID-19 in Detention

NEW OCCASIONAL PAPER: 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.

OCCASIONAL PAPER: “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.

Background | Data and Case studies | Research Team | Additional Resources

Beginning in early April 2020, a hastily assembled group of volunteers affiliated with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT) began work with the World Peace Foundation to track COVID 19 in places of detention. The group includes graduate students from Fletcher and the Medical School, undergraduates, alumni and faculty.

We are 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. While we focus on the United States, we also include some limited reports on other countries. The data we present is incomplete — the miserably low levels of testing, lack of centralized or consistent policy-making, and multiple jurisdictions make it impossible to capture a truly accurate picture of what is happening inside places of detention. Our project aims to rigorously assemble all the the available information, demonstrate how it is incomplete, and place the numbers in the context of changing policies.

This is an evolving project: please check back for updates.

Note: images are 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 ares, or anonymously hidden away within city borders, Tourlentes’ work captures their presence though 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.


This project to gather data on COVID 19 in places of detention was founded on three principles of protection: a society is judged by how it protects its most vulnerable; no lives are disposable; and improving conditions requires accurate information. Data, just like narratives, always  tell only a partial picture, but we live in a world where the simple act of counting is a measure of value. So we decided to start counting.

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 are reporting significantly higher rates of infection than among the general public. One of the contexts where people are at elevated risk is detention.

In many parts of the world, life in detention is in upheaval.

Around the world, there are reports of prisoners protesting (sometimes with deadly violence) their conditions, high levels of infection, and crackdowns. At the same time, some authorities have been implementing measures to decrease prison and jail populations. These have included releasing people nearing the end of their terms, those with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, the elderly and pregnant women, among others; using methods other than incarceration for minor offenses; and eliminating or reducing bail.

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. Imagine it as a single city, Detentionville, composed of 2.3 million inhabitants– a city the size of Houston, TX, Chicago, IL, or Paris, France. The people of this city are aging, with the +55 demographic representing over ten percent of the population and still growing. The population is also disproportionately poor, African American and Hispanic, and are particularly vulnerable to chronic diseases.

Unlike other cities in the US, Detentionville is not limited to a single geographical location; rather, its population are clustered in separately administered fiefdoms. These include 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. Detentionville is not separate from the ‘rest’ of America: it exists in most counties, every state and across the country. This strange ‘city’ also has a significant fleet of commuter-workers: lawyers, judges, police, bailiffs, parole boards, officers, facility guards (corrections officers), medical staff, social workers, teachers, volunteers, etc. And of course, it includes the children, spouses, parents, friends and loved ones of those incarcerated.

Camden NJ State Prison, Stephen Tourlentes

One consequence of the fractured nature of this “city” is that policy responses to crises like COVID-19 vary incredibly across jurisdictions. This means that detained people, their families and loved ones, and others who seek to advocate with them and on their behalf, have to navigate a labyrinth of different bureaucracies, legal webs, and institutional cultures. The lack of unified response to the spread of COVID-19 across prisons and detention centers in the US has resulted in unequal treatment and protection measures for those in detention, as well as making it harder to monitor, document, and defend against violations of their rights.

This project seeks to help fill that gap by tracking the spread of COVID 19 in detention centers in several states. It draws on work being done by advocates, state and federal officials, and journalists across the country. Our aim is to contribute to the picture of overall trends so that policy responses can be monitored and improved.

Right now, we urgently need policies that take immediate action to save lives of detained people and do so in ways that respect their core rights.

Infection rates in some places of detention are soaring well beyond that of the general public. These rates include not only people under detention, but also the corrections officers, medical personnel, and other staff who work in prisons, jails and other centers. Social distancing may help, and it is being done in some facilities, but it should not turn into long-term, widespread solitary confinement.  Isolation exacts a psychological toll and cannot be justified as an equitable response to a health crisis. The harms of solitary are particularly grave due to the prevalence of mental health issues across jails and prisons. It is reasonable that visitation is severely restricted, but authorities need to adopt policies that enable people in detention to remain regularly and safely in touch with their loved ones, lawyers, and mental health providers; and to maintain basic human relations that sustain all people.

While we “are in this together,” not everyone is equally exposed to risk. The conditions in Detentionville render its denizens particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. These prisons, jails, and detention centers could face a health catastrophe — it is already occurring in some places. The urgency of the situation has sparked action across the United States, with a wide range of response policies in place, some of which can provide positive example for others.  Multiple advocacy efforts are taking place calling for releasing people from detention, improving the conditions inside prisons and jails, and ensuring housing for those who get out.

This crisis is challenging. It simultaneously demands reflection and action. It is an opportunity to demand change – not just in the short-term, but a complete departure from the way things have been going in Detentionville. We believe that now is the time to equalize the playing field and truly make sure that everyone, both in Detentionville and elsewhere, has an equal chance at survival.

Data and Case Studies (presented by state)





New York


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.



Resources specific to each state are listed with the data and case studies, the below provide multi-state or multi-country information.

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. They’ve created a COVID-19 Action page with materials and resources created by/for or that are meaningful for higher education in prison programs from across the United States.

Justice Management Institute has created a checklist for agencies and organizations to consider as they seek to mitigate the impacts of coronavirus. It includes recommendations related to arrest, prosecution, supervision, courts and jail.

The Marshall Project provides reporting on criminal justice issues, including collating news from across the country.

The Prison Policy Initiative has advocated for five key policy changes and charted how U.S. various authorities are already implementing these: (1) releases; (2) reducing jail admittances; (3) limiting unnecessary check-ins and visits to offices for people on parole, probation, or on registries; (4) eliminating medical co-pays for prisoners; and (5) reduce the cost of phone and video calls.

The Vera Institute of Justice which focuses on ending mass incarceration, has produced coronavirus guidance tailored for different actors within the immigration and criminal justice sectors, including: immigration system actors; jails, prisons, immigration detention and youth facilities; police and law enforcement; Rikers Island; parole, probation and clemency; prosecutors, defenders and courts; rural justice systems; and youth agencies.

American Civil Liberties Union works on prisoners’ rights issues in states across the country. They’ve been a part of filing several key cases regarding rights during the COVID 19 crisis.

Southern Poverty Law Center has advocated on behalf of prisoners who are elderly or infirm to expedite releases, and to support their human rights while in detention.

The UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project under Dr. Sharon Dolovoch and Deputy Director Aaron Littleman, is tracking multiple data points, including: cases and deaths, releases, policy changes, legal filings and court orders, and more.

Photo: San QuentinCA, Death House, Steven Tourlentes

Leave a Reply