[3/17/20] – COVID-19 and the Inmate Population: What Can Be Done to Prevent an Outbreak in Correctional Institutions?

UPDATE 3/23/20: Inmates and workers in jails, state prisons, and federal prisons across the United States have, over the last several days, tested positive for COVID-19. The fear of a COVID-19 outbreak and possible riots in correctional institutions has prompted more states to release low-level/non-violent inmates from their institutions. News sources report that the Trump administration is also considering releasing elderly and non-violent offenders from federal prisons early in an attempt to prevent further spread of the virus. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of March 16, 2020, there have been 3,487 total cases and a total of 68 deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States alone. As the number of positive cases have increased in the nation, all levels of governments (local, state, and federal) have begun implementing strict measures to help prevent further spread of the virus (e.g. social distancing and self-quarantine). However, for certain populations (i.e. inmates), social distancing and self-quarantine are not an option. According to the New York Times, the American criminal justice legal system currently holds 2.3 million people, many whom are elderly and have pre-existing medical conditions. These inmates are housed in either prisons, jails, detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals. The system, which is plagued with issues such as overcrowding, lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions, and chronic understaffing, among other deficiencies, is not able to implement the social distancing and self-quarantine measures that are being implemented across the nation. As a result, the inmate population is at high-risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. To-date, the Bureau of Prisons has not reported any verified cases of COVID-19, nor have other local and county jails and state prisons. Following in the lead of Iran, which released 70,000 inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Cuyahoga County Court in Ohio has ordered the release of inmates who were high-risk of contracting the respiratory disease from the county jail. Officials in Los Angeles County are also considering doing the same, in addition to reducing the number of daily arrests. Other efforts include halting visitation for 30-days, screening inmates and staff for symptoms associated with COVID-19, reducing inmate movement, and prison lockdowns, etc. These efforts have been praised by activists and the ACLU who are urging other jurisdictions to do the same in order to protect the inmate population and the further spread of COVID-19.

Instructors click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.

The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.

Download the PowerPoint Lecture Spark for COVID-19 and the Inmate Population: What Can Be Done To Prevent an Outbreak in Correctional Institutions?




  • Writing: What efforts should be undertaken in order to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in U.S. correctional institutions?
  • Debate: Officials should not release inmates early but should instead focus on other preventative measures to reduce the risk of an outbreak.
  • Poll: Do you believe that other jurisdictions should follow Cuyahoga County Court’s suit and release offenders in order to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional institutions?
  • Short Answer: Why is the U.S. inmate population considered to be at higher risk of COVID-19 infection than the general public?


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