Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons have proven to be viral hotspots. Five of the largest outbreaks in the United States are linked to correctional facilities, and infection rates among incarcerated individuals are 5.5 times higher than the general population. Overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions make outbreaks difficult to prevent, and this has proven to be particularly true on death rows across the country. The Death Penalty Information Center has reported outbreaks among death row prisoners in Arizona, California, Ohio, and the federal prison complex in Indiana.
The first known COVID-19 death on death row was reported in Arizona on April 30, 2020, when Alfonso Salazar died from the virus. Seven other death row prisoners at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence tested positive, but no additional COVID-19 deaths have been reported since.
San Quentin State Prison in California, where California's death row is housed, is experiencing one of the worst prison outbreaks in the nation with over 2,200 infections reported. The outbreak has killed at least twelve death row prisoners, which is more than the state has executed since 1993. One death row prisoner stated in July: “[t]hey’re telling us they’re going to test us and we’re waiting for that test every day, but it’s just getting worse and worse here.” Individuals on California’s death row are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. The population is aging, and many prisoners have medical conditions identified by the CDC as increasing the risk of severe complications from an infection, including heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes.
On October 20, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal in California ordered San Quentin to reduce its prison population by half, and release or move almost 1,500 prisoners in response to the outbreak at the facility. Decreasing the population is intended to protect prisoners by allowing for proper distancing within the facility.
As of July 31, 2020, twenty-three death row inmates in Ohio tested positive for COVID-19 at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute. No deaths were reported from these infections. Additionally, one non-fatal case of COVID-19 has been confirmed on Florida’s death row, and there have been suspected outbreaks on death rows in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia as well.
Containing the virus on death row is even more challenging in the wake of an execution. Every state—except Texas and Missouri—has stayed or postponed each execution that had been scheduled to occur during the pandemic. Texas and Missouri both reported outbreaks in the weeks following their executions.
In contrast to the states, the federal government has been actively executing prisoners throughout the pandemic, resuming executions for the first time in seventeen years over the summer. Since July, seven people have been killed on federal death row, and three more are scheduled to be executed before the end of the year.
A Bureau of Prisons (BOP) court declaration filed during litigation preceding the federal executions—and cited in a subsequent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit seeking to compel the production of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—described the hundreds of people who are involved in each federal execution, including a 40-member execution team, several 50-member BOP special operations teams, and 200 Terre Haute staff for security, as well as the lawyers, spiritual advisors, and family members for the victim and prisoner. Federal executions also require additional travel and lodging arrangements because those involved often have to cross state lines in order to reach the federal prison complex in Terre Haute and stay there for several days preparing for the execution.
Other documents obtained by the ACLU under FOIA show that these federal executions likely caused a COVID-19 outbreak. Before the first execution, the federal prison complex at Terre Haute had reported just 11 cases of COVID-19. In September, that number increased to 209.
The disclosed documents also revealed that a BOP staff member involved in execution preparations tested positive for COVID-19 days before the first execution on July 14. The infected staff member did not always wear a mask when working and reported having “a lot” of contact with staff and prisoners. The BOP also failed to conduct adequate testing and permitted several exposed staff members to resume work after declining testing.
The ACLU also speculated that COVID-19 infections in the complex are seriously undercounted. The BOP has only administered 722 tests since March, which accounts for less than a third of the 2,397 prisoners. Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, stated, “[w]e know that in the wake of these executions there is a massive COVID-19 outbreak. We know that several prisoners at Terre Haute were hospitalized because of it.”
In total, at least thirteen prisoners on state death rows and three prisoners at FCI Terre Haute have died after contracting the virus. As of October 18, the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project confirms over 1,100 prisoners nationally have died from COVID-19.