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Using Data and Science to Understand the Impact of COVID–19 on Corrections

Date Published
September 21, 2021

The global COVID–19 pandemic has significantly altered our way of life while cutting short hundreds of thousands of American lives. Roughly 15 months into the pandemic, the United States had reported more than 32 million cases of the deadly virus and 600,000 COVID–19 deaths.[1]

Since March 2020, the pandemic has impacted the entire criminal justice system, especially corrections. Between March and June 2020, more than 11% of the 215,360 COVID–19 tests conducted in local jails were positive.[2] As the world changed, the justice system remained obligated both to protect public safety by providing secure environments for incarcerated individuals and to maintain the safety and security of staff and those in custody.

Although always a critical mission, protecting physical health and safety took on a different meaning during this time. The spread of COVID–19 led to significant changes in corrections operations, including reductions in institutional admissions, increases in early releases to the community, the modification or suspension of certain programming due to physical safety guidelines and shifts to virtual visitation in facilities and virtual meetings for individuals on probation and parole.

During the last year, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the U.S. Department of Justice’s research, development, and evaluation agency, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the country’s primary source of criminal justice statistics, worked to understand and document the impact of COVID–19 on corrections systems and offer recommendations to institutional and community corrections agencies on best practices going forward.

NIJ and BJS Reports and Briefs

As part of that effort, NIJ and BJS have released reports and briefs to support corrections agencies as they continue to adjust their practices and begin to resume pre-pandemic operations.

Through the NIJ-funded Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative,[3] the RAND Corporation recently hosted a series of workshops with key stakeholders to examine COVID–19’s impact on the criminal justice system. This article highlights findings from the institutional and community corrections workshops,[4] then discusses a recent BJS report on the pandemic’s impact on local jail populations.

Institutional Corrections Responses to COVID–19

RAND’s report on the workshops, Institutional Corrections System’s COVID–19 Response, describes common factors that may have helped the virus spread in correctional settings.[5] For example, a number of corrections agencies could not move activities outdoors, lacked ventilation systems that could address airborne viruses, had dense prison populations, needed to house individuals in shared spaces and required frequent exits and entries by staff and individuals under custody.

Workshop attendees raised specific challenges, such as conducting enough COVID–19 tests, knowing how to best use test results and addressing the health needs of incarcerated persons. Because many corrections agencies rely on external health care systems, their ability to serve incarcerated populations was strained by competing community service demands. That challenge was further complicated by the large portions of the corrections population who were deemed at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID–19. Those at-risk groups include the elderly, persons with preexisting health conditions and members of minority groups.[6] Facilities also struggled to deliver COVID–19 treatment and services to persons with mental health and behavioral disorders. Additionally, corrections staff faced heavy burdens, particularly when they contracted the virus or were required to quarantine, further stressing the staff who remained at work.

How Did They Adapt?

To maintain health and safety, corrections agencies had to reduce their incarcerated population and develop strategies for quarantine, such as physical distancing, wearing masks and enhancing hygiene practices. Most incarcerated persons had to rely on technology to keep in contact with their families and legal counsel, as facilities denied entry to visitors and all but essential personnel.

Things to Consider Beyond the Pandemic

Workshop participants encouraged corrections agencies, to the extent feasible, to maintain reduced populations;[7] continue using virtual technologies for visitation, court hearings and telehealth; allow certain corrections staff to telework; and include correctional facilities in local disaster planning. The crisis brought on by COVID–19 has also provided opportunities to implement and sustain reforms that are generally beneficial to corrections.

Research and Evaluation Questions for Future Consideration

The workshops also served to generate empirical questions that should be examined. A few that could substantially benefit all stakeholders are:[8]

  • How can data be collected to better understand the disease burden across demographic groups in correctional facilities?
  • What have been the pandemic’s mental health effects on incarcerated persons and correctional staff?
  • How can correctional officers and staff lower their risk of infection?
  • Can virtual visitation, telehealth and educational opportunities be expanded?

Community Corrections Responses to COVID–19

The RAND report noted the pandemic-driven reduction in jail and prison populations placed increased demands on community supervision agencies. Those agencies were already under stress as they attempted to meet their regular obligations, such as responding to the needs of high-risk offenders, sex offenders and individuals requiring mental health or substance use treatment. Further complicating matters was the severe impact COVID–19 had on the service agency networks that supply much-needed programming to community supervision.

Workshop attendees described the many adjustments they made amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, such as finding alternatives to incarceration where it was no longer a viable response to supervision violations, reducing face-to-face contact between community supervision officers and persons under supervision, adapting to the inability to conduct drug tests; and finding ways to adopt technology to assist with monitoring caseloads. During the pandemic, group treatment for mental health and substance use issues was severely limited. Fines and fees were often suspended, resulting in constraints on service providers and supervision agency budgets. And the “digital divide”[9] experienced by persons under supervision, who often cannot access the internet or other technology, was a recurring theme. Already stressed agencies were left to supply those resources, a task made even more difficult by the lack of housing stability during the pandemic. Community corrections agencies struggled to respond to the heightened demand for services they were less capable of providing.

How Did They Adjust?

To adjust to challenges brought on by COVID–19, community corrections agencies increased their use of virtual supervision. Greater reliance on technology allowed for more efficient contact between community corrections officers and persons under their supervision. Often the dosage of supervision was reduced and supervision terms were halted for individuals considered low-risk. For mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling sessions and medication distributions in some jurisdictions were moved outdoors.[10]

Promising Practices

As resources and capabilities allow, community supervision agencies should consider continuing the use of telework because it provides flexibility to staff and conserves resources. Virtual supervision models and telehealth can also continue to reduce the burden on individuals under supervision. (Hybrid models may be most effective to build relationships and reduce burden.) Virtual options also allow for a more “one size fits one” approach[11] in which interactions can be reduced when helpful and resources can be redirected to persons with the greatest needs.

Research and Evaluation Questions Raised

Research questions that would greatly benefit all stakeholders include:[12]

  • Are virtual models as effective as in-person supervision, counseling, and treatment?
  • Has the digital divide across different parts of the community corrections system affected the ability to continue operations during the pandemic? If so, in what ways?
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  • How has the reduction in drug testing and electronic supervision affected outcomes?
  • What are the net savings for community supervision agencies that implement virtual models?
  • How can changes made in response to the pandemic be distinguished from reforms already taking place?

Taken together, these initial observations from the institutional and community corrections workshops offer actionable guidance to agencies navigating the impacts of COVID–19.

The Impact of COVID–19 on Local Jail Populations

Although the pandemic tremendously stressed the nation’s criminal justice system, it also significantly changed local jail systems. From June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2020, local jails experienced a large, 185,400-person reduction in their confined population, according to the 2021 BJS report on the impact of COVID–19 on local jail populations.[13] In more general terms, COVID–19 led to a 25% drop in persons detained in local jails. In fact, the jail incarceration rate at midyear 2020 (167 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents) was at the lowest level since 1990.

Jail systems began to see reductions in their inmate populations as early as March 2020, and the trend continued in subsequent months. Declining admissions to jails, coupled with the expedited release of 208,500 individuals from jails between March and June 2020, resulted in less crowded facilities. By midyear 2020, occupied beds were down to 60% of capacity, compared to 81% at midyear 2019.

Jails across the country administered 215,360 COVID–19 tests to incarcerated persons during the four-month period of March through June 2020, which equated to testing 9% of the 2.4 million individuals admitted to jails during that time. More than 11% of those tests were positive. During this same period, approximately 8% of jail staff working in counties with the highest infection rates tested positive for COVID–19. In comparison, 1% of jail staff in counties with the lowest infection rates tested positive.[14]

For jails reporting information on deaths from COVID–19 (841 reporting units), 43 people incarcerated in 22 jails died between March and June 2020.[15] 33 of those deaths were reported as confirmed deaths from COVID–19 or as cases in which COVID–19 was a significant contributor to the death. The remaining 10 deaths were reported as suspected deaths from the virus. A total of 40 staff from 30 jails also died of COVID–19 between March and June 2020. 32 of those deaths were reported as confirmed deaths from COVID–19. The other eight deaths were reported as suspected deaths from COVID–19.

The BJS data collection is the first of its kind to provide data on the impact of COVID–19 on local jails in the United States. Though the time frame for the findings is short, the data highlight how COVID–19 led to significant changes in jail populations and operations. In the future, jail administrators will be able to glean whether these changes are sustainable and which practices, if any, can lead to continued declines in jail populations.

Conclusion

The impacts of the COVID–19 pandemic will be felt for years to come. As with the changes seen in state sentencing practices,[16] however, it is unclear what they will be, in terms of both corrections policy and practice and the experiences of staff and incarcerated individuals. It is safe to say corrections’ innovation and collective responses to the crisis have advanced the mission and goals of institutional and community corrections agencies in a very trying time.

This article presents a limited view based on what we know about the pandemic’s impact thus far. There is a lot left to learn. NIJ[17] and BJS[18] hope to be a resource for research and data as institutional and community corrections agencies continue to make decisions about resources, staffing and best practices and to uncover how COVID–19 continues to affect them. These agencies will also look for evidence pandemic-driven innovations will prove beneficial to the corrections system as a whole, even after the crisis subsides.

Date Created: September 21, 2021