Monitoring jail populations during COVID-19

People in jails are among those most at risk of contracting COVID-19. Urgent action is needed to decarcerate all jails and prisons in the United States to protect public health and save lives. Vera will be regularly monitoring jail populations during this crisis.

The table below presents the most recent jail population data available, as well as the jail population before the crisis. It is important to note that reductions in the number of people in jail are not necessarily the result of policy and practice changes enacted in response to the crisis. Fewer people may be entering jail because of reductions in court operations, law enforcement presence, or social activity. As the crisis worsens, decreases in jail populations can also be the result of people being transferred to medical facilities or dying from the coronavirus.

People are safer outside of jails—facilities in which close quarters and poor sanitation conditions spell disaster during a pandemic. The United States is a global anomaly in its use of mass incarceration and, as the table below shows, the current decreases in jail population are modest when compared to international, pre-COVID-19 incarceration rates. Although some jurisdictions have taken steps to actively reduce incarceration, more must urgently be done.

You can download the complete jail dataset from Vera’s jail population data github

You can sort data by any column and filter data for each state to better understand the magnitude of local population changes during the pandemic. The table defaults to the counties with the most people affected by COVID-19—but it is critical to note that these rankings are partly an artifact of the sheer size of the resident population and local capacity to test and identify cases. The per capita metrics provide a means to compare the prevalence of COVID-19 across counties of varying sizes.

You can also view how much more the jail population needs to decline to meet the pre-COVID-19 international average. The recent reductions observed in many places are very modest in the context of the United States’ outsized use of incarceration. The international incarceration data was sourced from the World Prison Brief, and includes both prisons and pretrial or remand facilities. For the United States to reach international rates would require an 85 percent reduction in the number of people held in prisons and jails. Assuming that 85 percent reduction happens in both prison and jails, the implied incarceration rates for the United States are 35 per 100,000 for jails and 68 per 100,000 for prisons. Included in the analysis are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, England and Wales, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Spain.

The complete jail dataset is available for download at Vera’s jail population data github. See Vera’s Incarceration Trends for county jail trends for the period 1970 to 2017 and Vera’s 50 state fact sheets on incarceration in local jails and state prisons. For more information on this data and Vera's methods, please contact Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research associate, at jkangbrown@vera.org.