What happened inside California's prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The effects of COVID-19 across the nation have been devastating, but the impact of the virus has been particularly acute in overcrowded prisons and jails. The epidemic has clear implications for incarcerated individuals and their families, as well as for those employed in the state’s prison system.

To understand the impact of COVID-19 in prison, we partnered with the California Department of Corrections (CDCR), the California Correctional Health Care Service (CCHCS) and researchers at UC Berkeley and UCSF as part of the California Prison Roadmap for Targeting Efforts to Address the Ecosystem of COVID Transmission (CalPROTECT).  

Between January of 2021 and August of 2021, we conducted semi-structured interviews and focus groups with staff and residents across California correctional institutions. In all, we engaged in conversations with over 250 individuals, including institutional leadership, supervisors, and frontline staff from medical, nursing, and custody teams, as well as with members of the Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) at each institution. 

Not surprisingly, we found that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted or exacerbated problems that were long-standing issues within corrections, including complex communication structures, staffing shortages, and low morale. This made the task of managing the pandemic and curbing effects especially difficult. Across the system, institutional leadership, supervisors, line staff and residents described the stress and difficulties related to working in a high-risk environment with insufficient and rapidly changing information. 

Our work was able to document the experiences inside prison during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, our final report described a wide range of specific recommendations aimed at helping prepare the state prison system for managing future crises of this kind. 

At the same time, we also worked in partnership with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) to determine how the COVID-19 outbreak impacted California correctional officers, both personally and professionally. 

In May 2020, we deployed an online survey to all officers currently employed in the state’s adult correctional institutions. We received 1,761 responses, constituting roughly 9% of California’s correctional officer workforce. We found that many officers faced substantial work-related stress as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, potentially exacerbating the work-related difficulties and attendant frustrations correctional officers were already experiencing. In addition, we find reason for concern that the added workplace stressors caused by the virus could increase officer absenteeism and turnover in both the short and longer term. 

This project was made possible with funding from the California Correctional Health Care Service.



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