May 8, 2021 06:55

Incarcerated Populations Served as Super-Spreaders in Many Communities: Study

As the coronavirus made its way into America’s densely packed and heavily populated prisons and jails, many knew these conditions were ideal for the virus to transmit.

Many of the worst nightmares of advocates, lawmakers, and families came to fruition as the coronavirus struck behind bars at an alarming rate, and a policy brief from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) now confirms how incarcerated populations have served as a “super-spreader” to infect surrounding communities.  

According to a new PPI report authored by Gregory Hooks, a sociology professor and researcher, and Wendy Sawyer, the Research Director at PPI, over half a million COVID-19 cases in America over the summer were the direct result of transmission of the virus through, into, and out of prisons and jails.

Those infected by the virus between May and August in counties are among those working in the facilities, the prisoners themselves, and individuals living near the facilities. 

Levels of local incarceration directly impacted the number of COVID-19 cases in the geographic area. The transmission rate was exacerbated in nonmetro counties — rural areas or places with small cities that are not a part of a bigger metropolitan area — because of their higher inmate populations. 

The same could be said for multi-county economic areas, where multiple or large prisons or jails are located,  demonsrating to the PPI authors that the intersectional impact of mass incarceration and the virus does not stay localized behind bars. 

“The trends in metro counties, on their face, are very concerning,” the authors write, adding that this is cause for alarm considering that many of these counties have several hundred thousand residents, and in a handful of counties, there’s over one million residents. 

A County-by-County Analysis

“At the county level, as the concentration of incarcerated people increases, so did the severity of the county’s COVID-19 outbreak,” the researchers discovered.

To look at this from a statistical perspective, counties in America with low incarceration populations (0.004 incarcerated persons per square mile) saw less than two additional COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. The narrative changes when looking at Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) defined areas, mainly rural locations, with 1.8-3.44 incarcerated persons per square mile.

In this 90th and 95th percentile, mass incarceration contributed to an additional 10 cases per 100,000 residents. 

Put simply, this increase in community spread as a direct result from mass incarceration is related to the sheer number of people that would come into contact with the carceral facilities: more people equals more risk. 

The authors include that it’s important to note that these additional cases mentioned are among county residents. The statistics do not include the number of COVID-19 incarceree cases.  

The researchers cite Marion County in Ohio as a prime example of this phenomenon. Marion County is a non-metro area, but there is high concentration of incarcerated people with 11.75 incarcerated persons per square mile (placing it well above the 95th percentile aforementioned). 

“According to this analysis, Marion County had an estimated additional 402 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents between May 1st and August 1st that were linked to mass incarceration within the county,” the authors write. 

To that end, BEA economic areas, or areas with the high incarceration populations, saw a steady increase of new virus cases due to high prison and jail populations regardless of rural or metropolitan counties. 

Nationally, COVID-19 cases in these nonmetro counties and multicounty BEA economic areas “reached a tragic scale” as mass incarceration accounted for over half a million COVID-19 cases in just the three summer months studied. 


Despite the fact that a team of regarded epidemiologists predicted early in the year that mass incarceration would lead to an uptick of cases in America, PPI researchers note that not much was done to heed their warnings.

Now, change must be made moving forward, they write. 

“State and local leaders should be held accountable for dragging their feet when it came to reducing prison and jail populations,’’ the conclusions outline. 

“But their inaction is part of a larger problem: our country’s inability to move away from mass incarceration, which leaders insist is necessary for public safety.”

Because of this and the uncovered data, the Prison Policy Initiative recommends that reducing the population behind bars is the only thing going to stop this crisis in its tracks.

To do this, the authors recommend policy-level changes for an increased use of clemency, parole expansion, and other de-population tactics to stop the virus’s spread.

They also suggest that we need to address the culture in our society that allows the use of “jails to manage social problems.”

That involves ending incarceration for behavior that could be handled through alternative strategies such as counselling or community involvement.

“With the pandemic dragging on, our ability to radically reduce our use of incarceration is now a life or death matter,” the writers conclude, noting that if lawmakers can’t make “swift changes” that we should brace ourselves for more COVID-19 outbreaks in carceral facilities. 

Gregory Hooks is professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at McMaster University, and he frequently works with PPI for data analysis for prison research. Wendy Sawyer is the Research Director at the Prison Policy Initiative.

The full report can be accessed here. 

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top