Economic Impact of COVID in Prisons

closeup of barbed wire on a prison fence

“Covid-19 upended many industries, and for Colorado’s prisons, it revealed not only the danger of hyperincarceration but also the best opportunities to move away from it.”

For my final economics seminar, I co-wrote a research paper on the disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 in Colorado’s prisons. My partner Zach Weiss and I wanted to analyze how the public health risk posed by prisons during the pandemic affected the typical cost-benefit calculations of mass incarceration. Pulling data from the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Prison Policy Initiative, ACLU, and a number of other public data sources, we were able to explore the prison pandemic through an economic lens.

The final paper, “How the Pandemic Showed an Economic Path Toward Colorado Prison Decarceration” was posted by the Poverty Action Center within the Regional Economic Development Institute (PAC@REDI), an engaged research enterprise under Colorado State University. Special thank you to Professor Alex Bernasek for her insightful critiques and unwavering support of our research topic.

Key Takeaways

Every single Colorado prison has experienced a Covid-19 outbreak. Out of 20 prisons, 13 had a higher infection rate than the state average of 8%.

The average CDOC inmate case rate suggests at least one out of every two people held in the state and private prisons caught Covid-19 during the first year of the pandemic. Colorado’s state prison rate is among the top 10 in the nation.”

The cost of Covid-19 infections from Colorado prisons is at least $45 million, not including costs already accounted for by CDOC. This was calculated based on cost estimates for Covid-19 treatment, hospitalized and non-hospitalized; total prison population cases (7,389); and estimated community spread cases (1,078.2). It does not include cases in county jails and federal prisons.

Risk to public health is yet another cost imposed by mass incarceration trends. Even in non-pandemic times, people in prison face greater threats from disease outbreaks and poor health conditions, which affects communities near and related to those populations. 

The excess public health risk people in prison were subjected to during the pandemic must be accounted for in order to understand the cost risks associated with mass incarceration.”

Colorado’s mass incarceration problems reflect those at the national level. That includes the high rates of imprisonment, overcrowded prisons, and significant racial inequities. 

Colorado’s prisons are usually always at the brink of overcapacity. It doesn’t have to be that way. Governor Jared Polis’ emergency executive orders helped keep populations low during a time of critical social distancing needs. Preventing prisons from taking in new people and a brief period of  early releases dropped the CDOC prison population from 99.1% capacity in January 2020 down to 74.3% in December 2020.

As disastrous as the pandemic was for those in Colorado and especially the residents behind bars, the future circumstances can be improved for a better social good.”

Recommended Resources

Our research is but a small part of the conversation on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. If you want to see more for yourself, these are the key resources that helped inform our research.

“Though mass incarceration and prison proliferation in the United States have been ongoing concerns for the nation, the Covid-19 pandemic brought a new urgency to the country’s imprisonment problem.”

Featured image by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash.

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