2022 Topical Reporting: Pandemic Coverage, Portfolio finalist

The Ongoing Crisis of Covid Behind Bars

About the Project

The Marshall Project and The Associated Press collaborated to produce the most comprehensive look at the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. prisons. From March 2020 to June 2021, The Marshall Project and The Associated Press tracked the spread of COVID-19 through state and federal prisons nationwide every week.

We counted more than a half-million people in prisons who got sick from the coronavirus and almost 3,000 prisoners and staff who died. And we made our raw data available so that journalists and other researchers could use it.

As earlier waves of COVID-19 appeared to subside, we examined whether prison officials had made any meaningful changes because of the pandemic in our article, “A Half-Million People Got COVID-19 in Prison. Are Officials Ready for the Next Pandemic?”. Our conclusion: There was little evidence to suggest enough substantive changes were made to handle future waves of infection. We then published an overview of our data in “A State-By-State Look at 15 Months of Coronavirus in Prisons.”

As violence grew at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York in the summer of 2021, we interviewed detainees, corrections officers and government officials with direct knowledge of the conditions in the prison and examined COVID’s role in the disarray. That allowed us to publish a remarkable series of first person essays detailing the deadly dysfunction at Rikers Island over the past year. “Dispatch From Deadly Rikers Island: “It Looks Like a Slave Ship in There,” provided a harrowing picture of life a jail that was understaffed and overrun with violence. New York City’s former corrections commissioner Vincent Schiralidi told us, “This is what the end of mass incarceration looks like. It’s going to end messy, it’s going to end ugly. And that’s what’s happening right now.”

At the same time, this line of reporting led to our investigation into why correctional officers are quitting their jobs in droves. We found that they were anxious about their access to healthcare and feared rising violence behind bars. Our reporting showed that several states were struggling to operate prisons with fewer and fewer staff. In Georgia, some prisons reported vacancy rates of up to 70 percent. Overtime hours had quadrupled in Nebraska since 2010. Florida temporarily closed three prisons out of more than 140 facilities because of understaffing. Reporters from The Marshall Project and The Associated Press spoke with workers, officials, attorneys and people incarcerated in more than a dozen prison systems to understand the consequences of the staffing shortages.