On March 6, 2020 the state of Utah announced its first case of a COVID-19 positive individual. Prior to this time, the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) began the development and implementation of processes and protocols to prevent the virus from entering the State’s prison system and contain it if it were to enter the prison system. Correctional and detention facilities are congregate and close quarter living environments, where viruses such as COVID-19 not only are able to rapidly spread but to overwhelm entire facilities.
Among the many proactive steps taken by UDC, as well as many local jails, has been to work to safely reduce the total incarcerated population. This serves several purposes. It creates needed empty housing units to set aside for quarantine and isolation for both suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19. It provides space to create at least some level of social distancing to help mitigate contagion. Finally, it assists in moving some individuals out of the prison system into the community where there is an ability to take precautionary measures such as social distancing and self-quarantine.
The critical need for these measures is demonstrated in the experiences of other prison systems across the nation. By the first week of July 2020, there were at least 57,019 COVID-19 positive incarcerated individuals. Among the highest were Texas, with 9,592 positive cases, and California with 5,372 positive cases. Further, it is reported that there have been at least 651 deaths of incarcerated individuals due to COVID-19. This includes 88 individuals in Texas, 86 individuals in Ohio and 68 individuals in Michigan. Additionally, there have been at least 12,481 cases of COVID-19 reported across correctional staff with a minimum of 46 deaths of correctional staff related to the virus.
The UDC began collaborating with the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP) beginning in March 2020 to safely release some incarcerated individuals earlier than their scheduled release date – as one piece of a larger effort to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in Utah’s prison system. For the 4-month period between March and the end of June 2020, the BOPP reports 730 individuals released with COVID-19 related considerations. Those released were individually reviewed and considered by both UDC and BOPP and were typically released a matter of weeks before an already scheduled release date. The average number of days of incarceration reduced is 69 days, or a little over two months earlier than they were originally scheduled for release from prison. For context, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an average of over 1,300 incarcerated individuals would be released over a four-month timeframe.
To date, Utah’s prison system has experienced one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation and has been able to successfully confine the virus where positive cases have entered the prison system. Specifically, between Utah’s two prison locations in Draper and Gunnison, there have been a total of four (4) COVID-19 positive individuals. Of these four, three have recovered, and none have either died or experienced serious medical conditions as a result of the virus.
Also during this time, Utah’s prison population has decreased. The decrease is related to a number of factors. One is certainly the earlier release of some incarcerated individuals. Additionally, the total number of prison intakes from April through June 2020 was 417 lower when compared to December 2019 through February 2020. Prison population is driven by both intakes and releases. When intakes drop significantly while releases increase, the prison system experiences a decrease in total population.
It is likely that an overall slowdown of the criminal justice system has influenced the decrease in new prison intakes. Since the beginning of July 2020, the number of releases has decreased when compared to March through June of 2020, while at the same time the number of prison intakes have increased. This will lead to a plateauing in the overall prison population. It is also anticipated that as criminal justice processes begin to return to more normal operations that Utah will likely experience some level of rapid increase in its overall prison population.
July 24, 2020