RICHMOND, Va. – Stephanie Parris was finishing a two-year prison sentence for a probation violation when she heard she’d be going home three weeks early because of COVID-19.
It made her feel bad to leave when she had so few days left at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. She said she wasn’t sick and there were no cases at the facility. But there were others still inside who could have used the reprieve.
“I would have helped someone who had nine or 10 months, someone who absolutely needed it,” she said recently. “There was a lady in there who was very elderly, and she has very bad health problems. I would have given my place to her.”
There has been a major drop in the number of people behind bars in the U.S. Between March and June, more than 100,000 people were released from state and federal prisons, a decrease of 8%, according to a nationwide analysis by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. The drops range from 2% in Virginia to 22% in Connecticut. By comparison, the state and federal prison population decreased by 2.2% in all of 2019, according to a report on prison populations by the Vera Institute of Justice.
But this year’s decrease has not come because of efforts to release vulnerable prisoners for health reasons and to manage the spread of the virus raging in prisons, according to detailed data from eight states compiled by The Marshall Project and AP. Instead, head counts have dropped largely because prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails to avoid importing the virus, court closures meant fewer people were receiving sentences and parole officers sent fewer people back inside for low-level violations, according to data and experts. So the number could rise again once those wheels begin moving despite the virus.
This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Damini Sharma and Weihua Li reported for The Marshall Project.