News 03.20.20

The Coronavirus Has Reached Jails and Prisons — But You Can Still Help

From lending your voice to donating, there are many ways to help while still social distancing.

By Daniele Selby

An immigration detainee sits in a high security unit at the Theo Lacy Facility, a county jail, in Orange County, California. [Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images]

The first case of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, in the U.S. was reported almost two months ago. Since then, the number of cases in the country has rapidly climbed, reaching more than 65,000 as of March 26.

And while anyone can become infected with the coronavirus, certain groups are more at-risk if they do become infected, health experts say. In particular, people over the age of 60 and people who have compromised immune systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people avoid exposure to the virus by frequently and thoroughly washing their hands and by avoiding close contact with others, especially with people who are ill. However, people incarcerated in jails and prisons are largely unable to follow these recommendations, and many have serious health conditions. Additionally, incarcerated people are typically housed in close quarters and lack access to quality health care. Hand sanitizer is considered contraband in prisons, while soap may not be widely available and may have to be purchased, leaving incarcerated people vulnerable to the ongoing global pandemic.

Dozens of people incarcerated in the U.S. have now tested positive for COVID-19. And experts, advocates, and those who work in the prison system expect the virus to spread like “wildfire” once someone in a facility becomes infected.

States and counties have taken varying approaches to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Cook County Jail in Illinois released several detainees considered to be “highly vulnerable” to the virus, and Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio has released hundreds of detainees — releasing them on bonds, placing them on probation, or sentencing them to time-served or community service — to reduce its incarcerated population. Prisons in Texas, Florida and California, however, have taken the opposite approach, limiting or completely suspending visitations and restricting the movement of prisoners.

The Innocence Project has advocated for the release of as many people as possible to help reduce the number of people who will be impacted by COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars and has advocated for access to COVID-19 testing, prevention and medical care for those who remain incarcerated. The Innocence Project has also advocated for incarcerated people to be able to call their families and attorneys for free during the pandemic.

There are a number of ways you can also get involved and support incarcerated people during this time. From signing petitions to advocating for better treatment of those who are incarcerated to donating to community bail funds that are helping to get people who can’t afford to make bail out of jail, these are some ways you can help while still staying home and doing your part to keep yourself and others safe.

Lend your voice to the cause.

  • Send a letter to the president, your governor, local prosecutors, sheriffs and other local elected officials to release incarcerated individuals who are elderly, medically vulnerable, or who have a year or less of their sentence left. Read more about what legal and policy experts at The Justice Collaborative are calling for, and find out how you can send these letters here.
  • Demand humane treatment and action from Gov. Cuomo for people in New York State prisons by signing Color of Change’s petition.
  • Sign this petition demanding free phone calls for people in prisons during this crisis.
  • Send a letter to your local jail asking them to make video and phone calls free for people in custody.

Reach out.

  • Send an uplifting message to our client, Darrill Henry, who recently won a new trial, but has returned to prison to await justice.


  • Many people in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime, yet they are there simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Community bail funds help to pay their bail on their behalf so they can be released and await trial at home. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing jail populations is one way to help fight the spread of the virus.
  • Donate to your local community bail fund. Check out the National Bail Fund Network’s comprehensive directory of bail funds by state to find a one near you.
  • Donate to the COVID Bailout NYC, a grassroots coalition trying to bail people out of Rikers Island and find them safe housing. There are thousands of people locked up in Rikers Island simply because they cannot afford bail.
  • Donate to the New York Parole Preparation Project. The organization is sending money directly to people in prison so they can purchase necessities from their local commissaries, including canned goods and soap, which can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The New York Parole Preparation Project is also sending care packages with necessary items and raising money to cover the costs of phone calls and electronic messaging to enable those who are incarcerated to more easily communicate with people on the outside during this time.

Read more and spread awareness.

Follow these champions of change on Twitter for more updates: @injusticewatch, @southerncenter, @helenprejean, @colorofchange, @scotthech, @BrooklynDefenders, @RDunhamDPIC

Updated on March 26 to reflect recent changes.

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  1. Rosendo DelReal says:

    My Dad is 57 years old, and he is Diabetic and being held in Arizona in a federal prison. Today his cell mate called us to tell us that he was not feeling well and they took him to “isolation” I’m sure that means the hole or SHU. How can I find out if he is ok, and how can I help his situation? He was a Resident Alien of the USA for 30 years and has 5 kids and raised 6 more on top of us. He was a successful business owner owning a few used car dealerships all buy here pay here. Meaning he helped people that didn’t have any other options in most cases and financed it all on his own back. A restaurant “most ate for free” and also a nightclub. He made 6 figures annually in the late 1990’s in ‘97-‘98-‘99 and 7 figures in the early 2000’s until 2005 then back down to 6 figures. He paid more taxes in than the majority of the us citizens. But now he is a illegal immigrant and is forced to work for .15 a hour and his health and LIFE is now at risk because he is diabetic and in this situation. What are our options??? Thank you. Also his charges that took his green card was a simple hand to hand on a wire (audio and video) of a gram of cocaine in 1999 they raided our home to find nothing at all. He did a couple years of work release and home detention and 5 years probation and completed everything satisfactory… after paying about $100,000 to lawyers and courts and probation and donations to politicians. 2 months later he is Arrested again for no reason and then a Conspiracy charge is what they called it to remove him from his family. Conspiracy…. what is that u ask?? It’s nothing. But what they think that you may be doing to earn your living.. also it’s a very affective way to fill the private owned prison camps for profit off of humans and there loved ones. It’s a Slave Trade for lack of a better word. How can we fight this for my Dad?? What do I need to do to begin this process?

  2. Josie Diaz says:

    Hi I would like your help my son was arrested it’s going on 3 months he is still in jail. His court dates have been canceled do to quarantine, during this time he did not have COVID-19 but he still was not able to make it to court. He let me know that they color coded the jail pods. Red is positive orange your exposed and green you don’t have it. The jail is letting all inmates come in contact with people who have COVID-19 they are not following proper protocol. Know my son has Covid-19 after the jail Failed to keep it from happening. My son also let me know that an officer let him know that there all going to get it and there’s nothing they can do. He also let me know that the inmates would be laying there days with covid before assistance was given to them and taken to the hospital this is not right. They just through inmates who are Covid-19 sick with the rest of the inmates.

Thanks for your comment

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