In this report, the authors examine trends in the overall coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection rate for the U.S. state prison population and summarize the findings from the most recent and most comprehensive study undertaken to date of correctional systems' responses to COVID-19 published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The authors also present the results of their 2022 survey of state correctional education directors to understand what modifications were made to educational programs for incarcerated individuals, including leveraging of technology in response to COVID-19 and impacts on instructional delivery and quality, student access to programs, enrollment and certifications earned, and on budgets.

  • There were two major peaks in the percent of COVID-19–infected persons in the state prison population (in late 2020 and the winter of 2022).
  • Correctional authorities adopted a range of mitigation measures, including providing face masks to incarcerated individuals and staff in correctional facilities, implementing isolation or quarantine of symptomatic persons who were incarcerated, and enforcing sick or administrative leave for symptomatic staff.
  • A survey of state correctional education directors indicated that the impact of mitigation measures on education programs was dramatic: Most of the 29 state correctional education directors who responded to the survey reported that instruction in 2020 was either halted or suspended and/or that in-person instruction was suspended across program types (adult basic education, adult secondary education, vocational education, and college programs). In early 2022, instruction still remained halted in one or more prison facilities for all program types.
  • COVID-19 and responses to it negatively affected instructional quality. Ninety percent of state correctional education director survey respondents reported short- or long-term gaps in instruction and an inability to administer assessments (e.g., high school equivalency tests, industry-recognized certification exams, academic placement tests).
  • COVID-19 and responses to it helped accelerate the adoption of online and hybrid learning models and the use of technology for prison education programs.

Read the full article about impact of COVID-19 on prison education by Lois M. Davis, Susan Turner, Michelle C. Tolbert, Allison Kirkegaard, and Beverly A. Weidmer at RAND Corporation.