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Sonia Munoz, a custody assistant, stands in the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles on April 16, 2020. (AP) Sonia Munoz, a custody assistant, stands in the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles on April 16, 2020. (AP)

Sonia Munoz, a custody assistant, stands in the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles on April 16, 2020. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 19, 2020

States do use masks to contain COVID-19 in prisons

If Your Time is short

  • Experts agree that wearing facial coverings in close settings provides some measure of protection against spreading the coronavirus.

  • Despite a claim on Facebook, New York, Michigan and California prisons all are providing masks to inmates, as well as staff, as part of their COVID-19 response.

  • Certain groups of inmates are being freed early as a way to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. They include pregnant women with less than six months left on sentences for nonviolent offenses, and other inmates who are either over 60 with health issues or months away from being eligible for parole.

Health officials and governors in states hit hard by COVID-19 are recommending masks to help contain the spread of the virus.

But if masks really work, a Facebook post asks rhetorically, why aren’t governors using them more in jails and prisons that have become COVID-19 hotspots? 

The post — accompanying images of governors Mario Cuomo of New York, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gavin Newsom of California — claims the three Democrats have "released thousands of dangerous prisoners into the public to kill innocent people and cause stress to our citizens," and that the governors "make" citizens wear masks. 

"If the masks actually work to prevent COVID-19," the post continues, "then why didn’t we just hand them out to all inmates … instead of releasing them to prevent the spread?"

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

It is inaccurate on several fronts. Medical experts now agree that face coverings help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and the states cited in the post have distributed masks to inmates. 

Meanwhile, states that are releasing inmates are considering the potential danger to the public in deciding which ones to release.

Claim overstates prison releases

Across the nation in response to the coronavirus, many more inmates are being released from local jails — which hold people charged with crimes or convicted of low-level crimes — than from prisons, which mostly hold people convicted of felonies. That’s according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts think tank that advocates for reducing the American prison population, and the New York Times. (In Florida, an inmate released from the Hillsborough County jail, where he was being held on nonviolent drug charges, was charged with second-degree murder the next day.) 

Some are being released from prisons. In New York, Michigan and California, thousands of prison inmates have been released in response to the coronavirus. The Facebook claim goes too far in characterizing them all as posing a threat to kill.

In New York, Cuomo announced in April that pregnant women with less than six months remaining on their sentences for nonviolent offenses would be released from prison. The state announced in March that up to 1,100 inmates being held in local jails for low-level parole violations and deemed not a danger to the public would be released to stem the flow of coronavirus cases in the correctional system. 

Michigan is releasing 200 prison inmates per week because of the coronavirus, WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich., reported on April 14. The state is looking to first release inmates eligible for parole who are nonviolent offenders older than 60 with health issues, though no offenses are off-limits, the report said. 

California announced in March that it planned to release as many as 3,500 prison inmates by expediting the transition to parole for nonviolent offenders with 60 days or less left on their sentences.

Why COVID-19 spreads in prisons

Correctional and detention facilities pose "unique challenges" in combating COVID-19, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. 

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Inmates live, work and eat in close settings, heightening the potential for the virus to spread. The virus can be brought into the facility in many ways, including through staff, medical professionals or others who enter from the outside. And options for isolating inmates are limited, the CDC notes.

Across the country, more than 25,000 prison inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 370 of them have died, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice.

Staff and inmates are required to wear masks amid large outbreaks:

New York: More than 1,200 prison staff have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state. The Department of Corrections requires all staff to wear face masks while on duty and supplies all inmates with surgical-type masks.

Michigan: With more than 2,100 state prisoner deaths from COVID-19, Michigan ranks third among the states, according to the Marshall Project. Each prison employee and inmate has received three masks that can be laundered and worn again, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. Staff are expected to wear a mask during their entire shift, and prisoners are expected to wear masks except while eating, sleeping or showering.

California: More than 430 cases of COVID-19, including five deaths, have been confirmed at the California Institution for Men in Chino, with tents being set up to provide more space and treatment for inmates, the Sacramento Bee reported. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says it provides masks and hand sanitizer to all staff and prisoners.

The effectiveness of masks

While masks alone cannot stop the spread of the coronavirus, health officials agree that facial coverings, including ones made of fabric, help slow the spread of the virus, as we’ve reported

The CDC recommends that nearly everyone wear a facial covering while out in public and in areas where social distancing isn’t possible. Higher medical-grade masks offer the most protection, but homemade masks are also effective, particularly when they fit snugly and are made of multiple layers.

New research since the start of the coronavirus outbreak supports the use of masks.

For correctional facilities, a May 15 CDC report recommends cloth facial coverings, along with physical distancing, movement restrictions and other measures. 

"Prompt identification of COVID-19 cases and consistent application of prevention measures are critical to protecting incarcerated and detained persons, correctional and detention facility staff members, and the communities to which they return," the report said.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed that if masks prevent coronavirus, governors in New York, Michigan and California would have given them to prison inmates instead of releasing them.

Experts agree that wearing facial coverings in close settings provides some measure of protection against spreading the coronavirus. New York, Michigan and California prisons are providing masks to inmates, as well as staff, as part of their COVID-19 response. 

Inmates in those states are being freed early as a way to try to limit the spread of COVID-19 — mostly nonviolent offenders or those who aren’t seen as a safety threat.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Facebook, post, May 14, 2020

PolitiFact, "Face masks, including homemade ones, are effective COVID-19 protection, experts say," May 18 2020

Prison Policy Initiative, "Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic," May 14, 2020

Democrat & Chronicle, "NY to release up to 1,100 low-level parole violators from jails to stop coronavirus spread," March 28, 2020

Spectrum Local News, "New York Moves To Release Pregnant Inmates," May 1, 2020

Medium.com, "MDOC Response and Information on coronavirus (COVID-19)," updated May 17, 2020

Sacramento Bee, "Coronavirus outbreaks continue in California prisons amid plan to accept more inmates," May 15, 2020

The Hill, "California to release up to 3,500 non-violent inmates amid coronavirus outbreak," March 31, 2020

WOOD-TV, "Coronavirus prompts prisons to parole inmates more quickly," April 14, 2020

New York Times, "As Coronavirus Strikes Prisons, Hundreds of Thousands Are Released," April 26, 2020

Marshall Project, "A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons," May 15, 2020

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, "COVID-19 Preparedness," May 14, 2020 update

Los Angeles Times, "California’s prisons and jails have emptied thousands into a world changed by coronavirus," May 17, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Correctional and Detention Facilities," March 23, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities — United States, February–April 2020," May 15, 2020

New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, "Daily Update," May 17, 2020

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States do use masks to contain COVID-19 in prisons

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