New COVID-19 Cases in State Prisons Surge in July

Angela Gunter, Hannah Sosland


As states grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, they are adopting different responses and seeing different outcomes. This has led to peaks and valleys in the number of new cases in each state since early April.

Cases inside state prison systems tell a similar story, but more dramatically. COVID-19 cases continue to rise among incarcerated people and corrections staff who live and work in state prisons, and the trajectory largely follows that of the general population. July, in particular, was marked by a sharp increase in new COVID-19 cases, especially among people who work in state correctional facilities.

Here are three takeaways from The Council of State Governments Justice Center’s latest analysis:

1. Various state-level shelter-in-place orders in April and May appeared to contain and curb the outbreak in state prisons for both incarcerated people and corrections staff; however, as these orders were lifted, new COVID-19 cases increased across the board.

2. While four times as many incarcerated people have contracted COVID-19 as compared with corrections staff, cases are growing fastest among corrections staff.

In July, the number of new cases among corrections staff was 3.6 times the number of new cases in June. Among people incarcerated in state prisons, there were 2.9 times as many new cases in July than in June, and in the general U.S. population there were 2.3 times as many new cases in July than in June.

The rate of growth in new cases among corrections staff is worrying not only because of the hardships they may face as a result, but also because as more staff get sick, they’ll potentially bring COVID-19 behind the walls. In addition, many state departments of corrections are already understaffed, and sick employees could contribute to that pressure.

3. Between July 26 and August 9, the total number of reported COVID-19 cases among people incarcerated in state prisons grew by over 17,000.

As of July 26, there were 64,208 total reported COVID-19 cases in state prisons, and by August 9 there were 81,717—an increase of 17,509 reported cases. Cases also increased among corrections staff: 17,608 corrections staff were reported to have the virus on August 9 vs. 14,730 on July 26, an increase of 2,878. These totals represent a cumulative count since the start of the pandemic.