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How State Prisons responded to the first wave of COVID in the US
This map depicts changes in state prison populations during the first peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and the subsequent cases of COVID-19 in state prison systems. Specifically, the map shows the percent change in state prison populations between March 31, 2020 to April 30, 2020 as well as the case rate and testing rate amongst state prison populations through May 21, 2020. For states where information is available, COVID-related deaths and criteria for COVID-related state prison releases are included.
*Note: Data points with the value -999 indicate “no data”.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, many state prisons emerged as coronavirus hotspots. According to The Marshall Project, confirmed COVID-19 cases in prisons “first peaked in late April, when states such as Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners.” As a response to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, many states announced plans to reduce prison populations by releasing people who met certain criteria: often people nearing the end of their sentences who were convicted of nonviolent offenses and who comprised at-risk populations. Despite these new criteria for releases, reductions to state prison populations have been minimal; the typical state prison system has reduced its population by just 5 percent.
The map above shows that states with some of the highest case rates amongst state prisoners have released just a small percentage of their prison populations. In Ohio state prisons, for example, where the case rate stood at approximately 90 cases per 1,000 incarcerated people on May 21, there was only a 2.6 percent reduction in the state prison population in April. Likewise, after only reducing its state prison population by 2.3 percent in April, Michigan saw a case rate of 84 per 1,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prison system by May 21. By contrast, states like Alaska, Iowa, and Rhode Island that released larger proportions of their state prison populations in April have seen smaller case rates. State prisons in Alaska reduced the population by 8.5 percent and saw a case rate of 0.46 per 1,000 incarcerated people. Iowa state prisons experienced an 8.2 percent reduction in population and a case rate of 2.44 per 1,000 incarcerated people. Similarly, in Rhode Island, a 7.6 percent reduction in the state prison population in April preceded a case rate on May 21 of 3.25 per 1,000 incarcerated people. These state prison systems that have larger population reductions have seen much smaller case rates compared to state prison systems with more limited releases.
The data on COVID-19 cases in, and releases from, prisons evidence the immediate need for widespread decarceration. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons have become clear epicenters of crisis as people locked behind bars face higher risks of contracting the virus while systematically lacking access to quality healthcare. Prior to the pandemic, however, incarceration itself was already a health crisis. As the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance explains, COVID-19 is the latest chapter in “a long history of epidemics and diseases spreading throughout prison and jail systems with little recourse or relief.” An important lesson to take from the current pandemic is the necessity of scaling up and continuing reductions in incarceration towards the ultimate goal of abolition. Only by abolishing cages can incarceration cease to be a health crisis.
COVID19-Related State Prison Incarceration Reprieves in Pennsylvania by Committing County
This map shows the percentage of COVID-related state prison incarceration reprieves by committing county in Pennsylvania, along with race and income data for each Pennsylvania county.
On April 10, 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf “ordered Department of Corrections officials to establish a Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration to help aid the department in the transfer of qualifying individuals to community corrections facilities or home confinement amid the COVID-19 pandemic” (see Press Release). The program applies to people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons who are identified as being non-violent and otherwise eligible for release within the next nine months, or people considered at high risk for COVID-related complications and within twelve months of their release.
Pennsylvania currently has over 41,000 people incarcerated in its state prisons. Under the temporary reprieve program, approximately 1,500 to 1,800 incarcerated people would be eligible, although only 159 people have had their sentences reprieved through the program as of July 14, 2020 (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections). This reflects a systematic pattern amongst prison systems throughout the United States, where state prison populations have had much slower and minimal reductions due to COVID-19 compared to jail populations. According to the Prison Policy Institute, the typical state prison system has reduced its population by just 5 percent, whereas the typical jail has reduced its population by more than 30 percent due to COVID-19.
In addition to disparities between prison and jail population reductions, Pennsylvania counties show divergences in state prison receptions and COVID-related sentence reprieves. For example, 6 percent of people sent to Pennsylvania’s state prisons in 2018 were committed in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. None of the reprieves granted under the Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration, however, were granted to people committed in Allegheny County. Likewise, while people committed to state prisons from Philadelphia County comprised over 16 percent of prison receptions in 2018, they make up less than 9 percent of those granted reprieves under the COVID reprieve program. The pop-up features on the map above enable comparisons of 2018 prison receptions per 10,000 people and temporary reprieves per 10,000 people for each Pennsylvania county.
The map above also contextualizes the places of re-entry for people who have been released from Pennsylvania state prisons under the Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has been directed to maintain post-release supervision and ensure that home and health care plans are in place for each person. This ongoing contact between people released from prisons and supervision officials such as parole officers can increase the risk of coronavirus spread. Understanding the racial and income contexts in which re-entry is occurring is an important step in holistically addressing the needs of formerly incarcerated people and their communities.
Since the number of incarcerated people who have had their sentences reprieved through the program is so small (even at the height of the first wave of the pandemic), it’s difficult to extract any significant trends between the proportion of inmates being released and the demographics of the committing country. However, a preliminary analysis of the data reveals some noteworthy correlations.
Counties with a significant Black population (over 10%) were half as likely to receive re-entrants based on temporary reprieves. Conversely, committing counties with the highest proportion of reprieves tended to be more white and with a slightly higher medium income than the average for all Pennsylvania counties. While we are unable to know the race and income of the people released under the temporary reprieve program, these statistics raise a concern that Black people are less likely to be released on a temporary reprieve and are therefore more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.
The COVID-19 and Cages Mapping Project is lead by Celeste Winston, PhD, Temple University, Department of Geography and Urban Studies and Olivia Ildefonso, PhD Candidate, The City University of New York Graduate Center, GIS/Mapping Working Group.
Dr. Celeste Winston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. Dr. Winston’s research focuses on the social and environmental impacts of prisons and policing, and everyday Black placemaking beyond policing. She is a justice-centered social scientist and critical cartographer who aims to generate evidence of and for more livable and equitable geographies.
Olivia Ildefonso is a Ph.D. candidate in Earth and Environmental Sciences with a specialization in Human Geography at CUNY Graduate Center. She studies school segregation and local control. She currently holds a Graduate Center Digital Fellowship and teaches GIS and mapping. Olivia is also an anti-racist activist. She currently serves on the board of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth and is a member of The Red Nation.