Study Released by National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice Finds Coronavirus Infection, Death Rates in Prison Vary Widely Among States

Separate report finds that local jail populations decreased an average of 31% early in the pandemic before rising again in May

12:00 p.m. ET, Sept. 2, 2020
Contact: Jenifer Warren | | 916-217-0780

Washington, DC – New research released today by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found wide disparities among states in rates of COVID-related deaths and cases in prisons. Five states – Arkansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Ohio, and Delaware – reported prison mortality rates more than eight times higher than rates for their general state populations, while some states – including New York and Pennsylvania – reported prison death rates below those for the non-incarcerated.

Overall, after adjusting for the age, sex, and race/ethnicity of incarcerated individuals, the study found that the COVID-19 mortality rate in state and federal prisons is twice that of the death rate for the general population. Without those demographic adjustments, the rate of COVID-19 cases in prisons is more than four times the national rate.

The Commission also released a separate analysis of the pandemic’s impact on jail populations, based on more than 14 million daily jail population records collected between January 1 and July 20.  Reflecting data from 375 facilities in 39 states, it found that jail numbers declined by an average of 31% between the issuance of the White House Coronavirus Guidelines on March 16 and mid-May.

The declines were accompanied by changes in the composition of jail populations. After pandemic responses began in March, data showed that those released from jails were on average 34% more likely to have been booked on felony charges, and had been detained for 71% longer, compared to pre-pandemic releases. The shares of people in jail who were booked on only misdemeanor charges, who were female, and who were white all decreased, while the proportions of those who were black, male, age 25 or younger, and booked on felonies increased. These compositional changes have persisted even as the jail population trend reversed, growing 12% between mid-May and July 20. 

The jails study, by Anna Harvey and Orion Taylor of New York University’s Public Safety Lab, also showed that rebooking rates for people released after March 16 remained at or below pre-pandemic rates. These findings suggest the population reduction did not negatively affect public safety during the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the authors caution that this could change as the pandemic wears on.

The reports were released at the third meeting of the commission, which is led by former U.S. Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch. The  commission was launched by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system, develop strategies to limit the current and future outbreaks, and recommend systemic policy changes to better balance public health and public safety. 

“Our commissioners are committed to producing recommendations grounded in facts, research, and evidence, and these reports on COVID-19’s impacts on correctional populations add considerably to our understanding,” said Thomas Abt, a CCJ senior fellow and the commission’s director. “The infection and mortality rates in prisons vividly underscore the importance of crafting solutions that will better protect all of those who work and are confined in the criminal justice system.”

One issue of concern remains the extent to which infection rates in the community and correctional facilities influence each other. Because of data limitations, the report authors were unable to shed light on this, but urged further investigation.

The prisons report was prepared by economist Kevin T. Schnepel of Simon Fraser University. Analyzing data through August 19, it also found that:

  • Among large correctional systems, Ohio reported 86 COVID-related deaths and a prison death rate more than 11 times the state rate; Texas had 112 deaths and a mortality rate about three times the state rate; and California, with 53 deaths, had a death rate about twice the state rate.
  • The highest prison mortality rate was reported by Arkansas. With 34 deaths and a prison population of about 15,500, its mortality rate of 218 deaths per 100,000 people in prison was nearly 20 times the state rate.
  • Fourteen states reported zero COVID-19 deaths within their prisons, and six reported COVID-19 death rates below adjusted state mortality rates.
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons – the largest single prison system in the nation with about 179,000 people held in facilities – reported 116 deaths and a mortality rate nearly twice the national rate.
  • Overall, the highest mortality rates were reported in large prisons (over 1,000 people), which accounted for 83% of total confirmed coronavirus infections and 87% of total deaths.

CCJ is a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank created to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy challenges facing the nation and build consensus for solutions based on facts, evidence, and fundamental principles of justice.

For more information on CCJ, the Commission, and the new reports, visit