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NASW joins coalitions in calling for CDC to slow high rate of COVID-19 in jails, prisons

Washington, D.C. — The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) today joined a coalition of more than 100 medical experts, human rights organizations, and faith-based organizations in issuing a letter calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to revise its current guidance for adult and juvenile correctional facilities to both slow the high rate of COVID-19 transmission, and ensure effective compliance with existing guidelines.

Specifically, the letter calls on the CDC to issue guidelines restricting the use of punitive and prolonged solitary confinement as a form of pandemic response at the federal, state and local levels.

“NASW has called on the policymakers to implement steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 in adult and juvenile jails and prisons, and using prolonged solitary confinement is not the answer,” said NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW. “Policymakers must enact sound, science-based measures to protect vulnerable populations in jails and prisons so inmates do not contract COVID-19 and spread it when they return to their communities.”

The number of people held in prolonged solitary confinement has increased by an estimated 500 percent in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase comes after years of slow but steady declines in the number of people estimated to be held in these conditions. According to the United Nations, the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days can amount to torture, and the practice should be severely restricted, especially for pregnant people, children and people suffering from serious mental illness.

Numerous medical experts and public health officials have repeatedly warned that solitary confinement exacerbates the spread of the virus, and is not an effective form of pandemic response. More than 1,000 incarcerated individuals have already died of COVID-19, and jails and prisons make up more than 90 percent of the nation’s top pandemic hotspots.

The coalition’s letter calls for the CDC’s swift implementation of the following five measures:

  1. Issue clear guidance to local, state and federal corrections officials, judges, and law enforcement agencies on reducing adult and juvenile jail and prison intakes and population size to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  2. Issue public health guidelines distinguishing “solitary confinement” from “quarantine” and “medical isolation” to prevent punitive conditions for those who contract COVID-19.
  3. Assemble a formal CDC working group on COVID-19 and prisons.
  4. Segregate suspected and documented COVID-19 patients from the general correctional population.
  5. Make soap and hand sanitizer freely accessible to all people incarcerated and working in correctional facilities, and make gloves mandatory for all staff.

The coalition’s letter highlights a June 2020 report by Unlock the Box that details the myriad ways in which under-prepared state and federal corrections officials have failed to develop comprehensive plans for containing the spread of COVID-19 inside their facilities. The report shows that in addition to prolonged solitary confinement becoming the default pandemic response in many prison systems across the United States to COVID-19, there has also been a systematic failure to institute basic public health measures that could actually prevent the virus’s spread inside these facilities.

These include targeted and safe depopulation efforts that would reduce overcrowding and make effective social distancing easier and more effective. Many jails and prisons have also failed to provide critical personal protective equipment, or enough basic sanitization supplies such as hand sanitizer or soap.

“There is an ongoing and accelerating humanitarian crisis occurring in jails and prisons across the nation, and public officials have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to adopt and implement safe and effective strategies in response to COVID-19,” said Jessica Sandoval, Campaign Strategist for the Unlock the Box Campaign.

For more information read the NASW Social Justice Brief, Addressing COVID-19 and Correctional Facilities: A Social Work Imperative.


The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.