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NIC Study Shows COVID's Broad Impact on State Prisons

State prison systems endured severe staffing challenges, budget cuts and disruptions to prison programming in the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new national survey results published by the National Institute of Corrections. "Since the onset of COVID-19, practical information about effective responses for correctional agencies has been lacking," the report states. "Correctional leadership has been forced to innovate to keep their staffs and populations safe and ensure continuity of operations." That innovation, the report found, had to be done in a chaotic atmosphere. "Overall, respondents agreed that the pandemic had drastically affected daily operations at their respective institutions," the report states. "When asked to summarize these effects in just a few words, they chose words such as 'profound,' 'daunting,' 'complicated,' 'extremely challenging,' 'distracting,' and 'circus-like.'" The report concludes that prison agencies "need expanded capacity, staffing, supplies, and resources to operate effectively both during public health emergencies and under nonemergency conditions," along with better policies to combat vaccine hesitancy and to encourage better collaboration among personnel and agencies.


NIC worked with the non-profit research firm CNA, with help from the Correctional Leaders Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association, to conduct the 50-state survey, which was supplemented by focus group interviews. Among its findings: Half of all agencies viewed hiring new employees as a major problem; 21% saw that problem as moderate. Nearly all agencies reported screening incarcerated people for COVID-19 symptoms at intake and release and requiring masks for staff. All survey respondents reported offering vaccinations to incarcerated people and 96% offered them to staff, but as of June 2021 the "mean vaccination rates" were 44% for incarcerated people and 51% for employees. Transfers to other facilities were curtailed, as were work details and programming in most prisons. Two-thirds of agencies reviewed classification and custody levels of incarcerated people, which resulted in releases from custody at 81 percent of the agencies that underwent such reviews. Prison populations dropped by 17% during 2020, which security personnel headcount declined an average of 2%. "Studying the outcomes of these modifications is essential to assist the broader correctional system in reaching a new normal," the report concludes.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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