Report gives California a “C” grade for its COVID-19 response in prisons


Eli Kirshbaum


According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative released on Wednesday, California has had the second best response to COVID-19 in prisons in the country, but the state’s “C” ranking isn’t cause for celebration. 

The report evaluated each state’s department of corrections on their response to COVID-19 in prisons, from the beginning of the pandemic to July 2021. The report scrutinized the low grades of all 50 states, calling the US’s response to COVID in prisons a “shameful failure.”

“It’s telling that not one prison system in the U.S. scored higher than a C; as a whole, the nation’s response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure.”


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California’s nation-leading ranking is in large part due to its widespread COVID vaccination efforts. The report looked at both the prioritization of prison populations in state vaccination efforts as well as the actual number of vaccinated inmates. For this ranking, California ranked “high” for its prioritization of prison populations. The state’s requirement for prison employees to get vaccinated likely contributed to this. It had a 75.9% incarcerated vaccination rate, the 13th highest in the country.

States were also graded on how much they reduced their prison populations during the pandemic, including suspended incarceration and accelerated release policies. California’s prison population decreased by 19.2% from March 2020 to July 2021 — around the nationwide average for this metric. New Jersey, the highest-ranked state, reduced its prison population by 41.9%.

However, California gained considerable points for implementing policies to suspend incarcerations for technical violations, accelerate releases, allow medical or compassionate release, as well as minor offense releases.

By contrast, California had a 51.9% infection rate and a 0.24% COVID mortality rate among its incarcerated population, placing it in the lower half of states for this metric. Unmitigated COVID spread in state prisons reached such an intensity that some institutions reached herd immunity, according to the Sacramento Bee.

For the report’s ranking of state actions to address prisoners’ basic health needs, California ranked the highest along with four other states. It was given points for providing masks and hygiene products to prisoners, requiring staff to wear masks and get tested, and allowing free phone and video calls. The report also highlighted California’s elimination of copays for inmate health care services as a factor in its higher ranking.