COVID safety measures in prisons and jails harm mental health and odds of effective reentry for women behind bars

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May 4, 2021

Corrections agencies implemented COVID-19 safety measures that are exacerbating the trauma women were already experiencing in prisons and jails, according to a new nationwide report from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. Agencies also did not prioritize the release of women who are especially vulnerable to COVID and low risk to public safety. There are extremely few examples of agencies taking a gender-responsive approach to COVID-19 precautionary measures, researchers say.

Measures found to be particularly harmful to women are the suspension of visitation and programming, increased use of cell restriction and lockdowns, and the use of medical isolation and quarantine. While these measures may have been necessary in order to slow the spread of the virus in correctional facilities, researchers say little attention was paid to how they might be particularly problematic for women. About 80% of women in custody are mothers of young children, and almost 90% have histories of serious trauma from abuse and neglect that affect their mental health in response to these restrictions.

"These COVID safety measures—many of which significantly increase separation and isolation—raise questions about how people in custody are coping under these challenging circumstances." —Alycia Welch, associate director, COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project

"These COVID safety measures—many of which significantly increase separation and isolation—raise questions about how people in custody are coping under these challenging circumstances," said Alycia Welch, lead author of the report and associate director of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the LBJ School. "This report examines the particular challenges faced by incarcerated women during the pandemic, and asks how prisons and jails can mitigate the harm caused by policies meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities."

The vast majority of correctional agencies suspended in-person family visitation, but did not provide women with alternative and affordable methods of communication with loved ones, causing harm to their children and families. Most correctional agencies have also not provided alternatives to in-person programming and services that could otherwise keep women occupied during long periods of isolation and improve their chances for successful reentry.

The pandemic has amplified concerns about women's access to routine medical and mental health care. Women's access to basic necessities, including hygiene products and sanitary supplies, have become even more limited. Additionally, finding safe housing options has always been a particular challenge for women after their release. Given the risk of exposure to COVID during incarceration, safe, supportive housing options are even more scarce for women, especially during the 14-day quarantine period immediately after release.

Researchers say corrections agencies, policymakers and other elected officials still have time to reduce the harm incarcerated women are experiencing during the pandemic and improve odds for reentry. First, researchers recommend accelerating the release of more women from prisons and jails. Most women are very low risk to the community and can be safely released as a way to depopulate the facilities and reduce the risk of COVID spread, consistent with the guidance of correctional health experts. Many women, especially those who are pregnant and those with medical conditions, are also high-risk from the virus and need to be out of harm's way. The 2020 death of Andrea High Bear, who died from COVID in a federal prison in Texas shortly after giving birth, underscores the risks involved for this population.

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Recommendations also include reducing the number of women entering correctional facilities through diversion efforts; providing opportunities for meaningful contact between women in custody and their children by developing creative virtual activities like game nights or reading stories; delivering programs and reentry services to women in custody through the use of tablets provided at no cost to the women; providing women in custody access to gender-specific health services that support positive physical, behavioral, and reproductive health outcomes, including through increased use of telehealth services; and developing mini-cohorts of women within the facilities to reduce the women's sense of isolation.

"Each recommendation includes a set of immediate steps and longer-term actions that corrections agencies can take to ensure that the changes meet women’s distinct needs," said Michele Deitch, co-author of the report and distinguished senior lecturer at the LBJ School. "We wanted to be sure these important reforms are sustainable after the pandemic is over."

This report was produced as part of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, with support from the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation. The COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project is led by Michele Deitch, project director, and Alycia Welch, associate director.


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