News Release

Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Re-emphasizes the Grave Risk of COVID-19 in Jails and Prisons, Calls for Immediate Action

Washington, DC (July 15, 2020) -- It has now been over four months since the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) issued its first warning that the incarcerated people, staff, and communities inside and surrounding the nation’s prisons and jails were at mortal risk due to COVID-19 – we now know that NACDL’s initial warning was more than warranted.

When NACDL first issued its warning and call for action on March 4, 2020, there existed a little over 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country and fewer than a dozen US deaths. Now, with over 3 million cases and over 130,000 deaths in the US as a whole, and over 55,000 cases and over 650 deaths in US prisons, NACDL is once again calling for swift, dramatic action to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, and save the lives of incarcerated people, correctional facility staff, and surrounding communities. As with the size of its incarcerated population relative to the rest of the world (both per capita and in absolute numbers), the United States is also the world leader in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“Jails, prisons, and other detention facilities are incubators for the novel coronavirus,” NACDL President Nina J. Ginsberg said. “With poor conditions and a lack of personal protective equipment, adequate sanitation, and distance, leaving incarcerated people in prisons and jails during this crisis is not only cruel and unusual punishment, it may also be a death sentence. And, as with mass incarceration in America, the impact of COVID-19 in the general population as well as in prisons and jails evidences dramatic and unacceptable racial disparities. The fact is that countries less free than the United States have taken more steps to protect their prison populations. We need immediate action to save the lives of prisoners, staff, and surrounding communities. We need to do better.”

Though many states are ramping up testing in the general population, the prison and jail populations remain severely undertested. For example, according to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, as of July 10, in New York the testing rate for prisoners is barely above 10%. That number is about 56% lower than New York’s testing rate overall.

“There is no excuse for not prioritizing testing for these vulnerable people,” NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer said. “We are especially dismayed to see states that were early epicenters, like New York, lagging so far behind in testing.”

NACDL’s March 4 statement calling for prompt implementation of comprehensive, concrete, and transparent COVID-19 readiness plans for prisons, jails, and other detention facilities can be found here. NACDL and a group of national organizations, including the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Center for HIV Law & Policy, among others, also issued a joint news release and joint set of principles regarding incorporating public health approaches into the criminal justice system response to COVID-19 and beyond.


Madeline Sklar, Public Affairs and Communications Associate, (202) 465-7647 or

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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