How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Devastating Incarcerated People and their Communities

A black man sits behind bars depicted by a red block, and floating germs and virus added to collage.

How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Devastating Incarcerated People and their Communities

The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, with just four percent of the world’s population but 21 percent of its incarcerated population. Further, the conditions in our prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers are notoriously overcrowded, unhygienic, and cruel. It was thus clear very early on that the pandemic would lead to disproportionate suffering and loss of life in these facilities and their surrounding communities unless substantial action to release incarcerated people was taken.

 

There is still time to right these wrongs. Local, state, and federal officials must reduce the number of people in prisons, jails, and detention centers by not incarcerating anyone for low-level charges, releasing those who are bail-eligible, and releasing those who are disabled and otherwise medically vulnerable to the virus.

Last updated on September 24, 2021

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A Look at the Numbers

Number of imprisoned people dying of Covid

See the full database here. Updated: September 24, 2021.

In The Courts

Current Legal Cases

These are four pending cases regarding conditions in and the release of people incarcerated in our country’s jails, prisons and detention centers.

ACLU v. Federal Bureau of Prisons
This lawsuit was filed to uncover the federal government’s COVID-19 response in jails and prisons. In October 2020, The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, Williams & Connolly LLP, and attorney David Sobel filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demanding the immediate release of improperly withheld agency records related to the federal government’s failed response to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. The lawsuit seeks to uncover critical information about the federal government’s response — and lack thereof — to the coronavirus in detention facilities across the country.

Learn more

Busby v. Bonner
Medically vulnerable people and people with disabilities detained at Shelby County Jail are at grave risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19. An outbreak is already underway, and has infected hundreds of people living and working in the Jail. One staff member has died as a result. Social distancing is impossible, basic hygiene is deficient, and the jail isn’t properly screening, identifying cases, or quarantining people who have been exposed to the virus. Urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm to those incarcerated and the surrounding community. This lawsuit was filed with the ACLU of Tennessee, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Just City, and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steven Mulroy.

Learn more

Hallinan v. Scarantino
The lawsuit is asking for the rights of people incarcerated to be protected and conditions be made safe for those who remain in custody amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to intensifying COVID-19 outbreaks at the federal prison complex in Butner, North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Winston & Strawn filed a class-action lawsuit against administrators at Butner Federal Correctional Complex.

Learn More

Ahlman v. Barnes
This class-action lawsuit seeks to force Sheriff Don Barnes and Orange County to take urgent steps to remedy conditions in Orange County jails during the pandemic. Specifically, it calls for the immediate release of vulnerable and disabled people in jail, plus greatly expanded social distancing, care, testing, and personal protective equipment. It also seeks additional releases until the jail population is low enough to provide for the level of social distancing recommended by public health experts. As of May 26, 2020, at least 366 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Orange County’s jails.

Learn more
A collage of a statue of a woman holding a scale, a police badge, and a gavel

ACLU v. Federal Bureau of Prisons
This lawsuit was filed to uncover the federal government’s COVID-19 response in jails and prisons. In October 2020, The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the District of Columbia, Williams & Connolly LLP, and attorney David Sobel filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demanding the immediate release of improperly withheld agency records related to the federal government’s failed response to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. The lawsuit seeks to uncover critical information about the federal government’s response — and lack thereof — to the coronavirus in detention facilities across the country.

Learn more

Busby v. Bonner
Medically vulnerable people and people with disabilities detained at Shelby County Jail are at grave risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19. An outbreak is already underway, and has infected hundreds of people living and working in the Jail. One staff member has died as a result. Social distancing is impossible, basic hygiene is deficient, and the jail isn’t properly screening, identifying cases, or quarantining people who have been exposed to the virus. Urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm to those incarcerated and the surrounding community. This lawsuit was filed with the ACLU of Tennessee, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Just City, and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steven Mulroy.

Learn more

Hallinan v. Scarantino
The lawsuit is asking for the rights of people incarcerated to be protected and conditions be made safe for those who remain in custody amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to intensifying COVID-19 outbreaks at the federal prison complex in Butner, North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Winston & Strawn filed a class-action lawsuit against administrators at Butner Federal Correctional Complex.

Learn More

Ahlman v. Barnes
This class-action lawsuit seeks to force Sheriff Don Barnes and Orange County to take urgent steps to remedy conditions in Orange County jails during the pandemic. Specifically, it calls for the immediate release of vulnerable and disabled people in jail, plus greatly expanded social distancing, care, testing, and personal protective equipment. It also seeks additional releases until the jail population is low enough to provide for the level of social distancing recommended by public health experts. As of May 26, 2020, at least 366 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Orange County’s jails.

Learn more