US Prison System Under Pressure from COVID-19

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

On Wednesday, April 8, 2020, the Washington State Patrol announced a total of six inmates had tested positive at the state's Monroe Correctional Complex. Soon thereafter, nearly 200 prisoners rioted, causing limited damage and defying guards orders. The next day, inmates at a Kansas prison revolted, taking over a cell block and destroying property.

These incidents, though unlawful, draw attention to a growing concern amongst inmates, law enforcement, and medical experts that prisons, penitentiaries, and jails across the country are ill-equipped to handle the virus, and thus are becoming hotspots for COVID-19. As these spaces are not conducive to social distancing, the number of infections connected to such facilities has slowly but sure risen.

"Jails in this country are petri dishes," says Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois's Cook County Board president. "It's very difficult in a jail to maintain social distancing." Cook County Jail, in Chicago, is home to the largest outbreak in a jail anywhere in the country. Nearly 238 inmates and 115 staff have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

Prisons are taking a number of steps to prevent the spread of the virus among their populations. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has ordered that all social visits be suspended, telephone minutes for inmates increased, legal visits canceled, and all volunteers to be prohibited. Furthermore, staggered meal times and recreation are being implemented as needed by facility, and inmate and staff movement between prisons is halted for the duration of the pandemic. These measure are in addition to increased testing across the country, along with enhanced sanitation and quarantine guidelines.

Monroe Correctional Complex, State of Washington

Lansing Correctional Facility, State of Kansas

Cook County Jail, State of Illinois

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.