How America Is(n’t) Handling COVID-19 in Prison

Last month, June of 2020, late-night comedian John Oliver delivered a story discussing the treatment of prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak on his adult-oriented HBO talk show Last Week Tonight. Oliver is famous for his segments on various topics, ranging from serious to comedic, examples being net neutrality, multilevel marketing, sex education, the opioid epidemic, family separation, and multiple foreign elections. Coining the term the “John Oliver effect”, he has had a hand in pushing for multiple changes in legislation, regulation, and culture in America. Most notably, he pushed for the FCC to adopt net neutrality regulations. Last Week Tonight has an immense audience, with it bringing in over one million viewers on its first episode covering the coronavirus. Now, Oliver has done 9 separate episodes on the coronavirus (as of July 11, 2020) and the effects the virus has had on various facets of the world, including evictions, testing, sports, and the focus of this article, how America is handling the virus in its jails and prisons. 

Over 2.2 million people are being held in jails and prisons across the United States. Inmates are more likely to be susceptible to the coronavirus than others due to a large amount of them being elderly and immunocompromised. The tightly compacted buildings are a petri dish, waiting for diseases to spread. In the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex alone, more than 1,000 out of 2,700 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. 445,00 non-inmate personnel working in jails and prisons across the U.S have reported over 9,000 coronavirus cases. Running the numbers, a total of 42,107 of 1,295,285 prisoners had been infected with COVID-19 as of July 9, 2020. This is at a rate of 3.25% compared to 0.59% of the general population. In the US population. 

Why exactly are there such obscenely large numbers of cases coming from prisons and jails? Beyond the cramped conditions of jail cells that do not allow for social distancing, facilities are doing little to protect inmates from catching the virus. Soap, a key element for protecting oneself against any catchable disease, is either rationed or not provided to prisoners. In order to get soap, they will have to buy it from the commissary. However, the issue that arises with this is that prisoners are paid nearly nothing for their labour, making it impossible to protect themselves. Other personal protection equipment, or PPE, such as masks and gloves, have also failed to be provided. Testing has been scant as well, with some prisons refusing free testing. What happens when someone does show symptoms of the virus? More likely than not, they’re placed in solitary confinement. With all this malpractice, inmates are unsurprisingly speaking out. 

Image From: “COVID-19 Threatens Indonesia’s Overcrowded Prisons”

Multiple videos have surfaced of inmates using contraband phones to tell the public about the lack of care being given in prisons and jails and even displaying riots that have happened. As an example, Oliver used footage of the inmate uprising at Lansing Correctional Facility: one inmate saying “Y’all don’t wanna give us no healthcare? This is what we do.” This is just one of many riots happening because of poor healthcare in prisons, as inmates have no other way to force those in power to pay attention. A California spokesperson said that the prison population can simply be ignored from COVID numbers as they’re “a whole separate population”, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. On any given day, some 400,000 people are moving in and out of jails which gives the virus ample opportunity to spread elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, other countries are handling COVID in prisons and jails as a real emergency, just as they should. An article from Slate explains how Palestine rushed to release prisoners that have served at least half their sentences, excluding those charged with major offences. Iran also did similarly and pardoned more than 1,400 people. There are some U.S. states that granted early release for inmates such as California and New Jersey, but this is not enough. Overcrowded prisons have been an issue for years now, but with COVID in its wake, we cannot have these facilities being crammed full of people. Iran had the same issue of overcrowded prisons becoming breeding grounds for the coronavirus and also chose to free over 100,000 prisoners. While other countries have managed to handle the coronavirus quite swiftly, America has still yet to find and execute a proper solution. 

The fact is, America has been handling this issue atrociously. Overall, there are over 1,600 clusters of 50 or more cases of coronavirus across the US, and eight out of ten of the largest clusters with over 1,000 cases come from jails or prisons. New Zealand, Slovenia, and Iceland have all had less COVID-19 cases than the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, which as of June 12, had almost 2,500 cases. Transferring prisoners and locking them in solitary if they are showing symptoms is only going to exacerbate the issue at hand. Punishing inmates instead of properly testing and treating them is only going to discourage them from coming forward and thus continuing the spread of the virus. 

Image From: “WHO reports over quarter million new Covid-19 cases in 1 day”

What exactly needs to be done to contain the virus? Supplies, testing, decarceration, and treatment. Officials need to not refuse free testing, not assume that the virus won’t spread because inmates are not going out into society, and not lock possible patients in solitary confinement. People may argue against decarceration because they don’t want criminals being released, but not only is that a classist argument, the only inmates being released will have to be qualified for release first. An article from NPR states that in California, the potential 8,000 inmates being released over the summer are those with less than 180 days of their sentence left and non-violent offenders. Not only will reducing the number of prisoners decrease the spread, but it also means there will be fewer people to test and give PPE. Even the bare minimum can help reduce the number of pointless deaths of fellow human beings. Just because they’re convicted doesn’t mean they deserve to die. 

There is no guarantee that everyone released from prison will not re-offend, but the risk of letting people out is far less than the risk of keeping everyone inside. At the bare minimum, prisons can release immunocompromised and elderly patients that are at high risk of catching the virus and at low risk of committing another crime. The fight against the coronavirus cannot be done without risk. Prisons and jails are already overpopulated due to the systemic racism embedded in our society against black and Latinx people and the idolization of the police. Reducing the population of prisons is long overdue, but now with a virus pressing for time, there still hasn’t been that much progress. The amount of inmates in prison and jail across the United States has only been reduced by around 3-5% as of June 2020. This is simply not enough. For too long, we have been led to believe that all criminals are vile predators who should forever be shunned from our society. For too long, we have ignored the reality behind the issue: mental health, wealth inequality, and systemic racism. If we stay silent and allow the government to keep getting away with letting the coronavirus run rampant in correctional facilities, then this virus will not end and more people will die needlessly to a virus that could have been wiped out months ago. Speak out, donate, tell your friends and family about this injustice, because staying silent has never helped anyone. 


Anderson, David. “How Other Countries’ Courts Are Handling the Pandemic.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 6 May 2020, 

Chappell, Bill. “California Will Release Up To 8,000 Prisoners Due To Coronavirus.” NPR, NPR, 10 July 2020, -to-8-000-prisoners-due-to-coronavirus. 

Horton, Adrian. “John Oliver on Prisons during Covid-19: ‘That’s Not Justice, That’s Neglect’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 June 2020, ght-recap. 

Londoño, Ernesto, et al. “As Coronavirus Strikes Prisons, Hundreds of Thousands Are Released.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2020, 

Merelli, Annalisa. “There Are More Covid-19 Cases in Some US Prisons than in Entire Countries.” Quartz, Quartz, 15 June 2020, 

Van Beusekom, Mary. “US Prison Inmates among Those Hit Hard with COVID-19.” CIDRAP, 9 July 2020, 19.


Transcriber, writer, editor, poet

Kieran is a 17-year-old photographer and writer from New Jersey. Being nonbinary and a person of colour, their life has been consumed by politics and news for years now. Even so, Kieran prefers to express themself in the arts, taking photos of the unique and writing poetry and fiction. For now, their work on Zenerations will focus on Generation Z’s relationship with race, culture, and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Art by @turtlesintherain

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