FULL CLAIM: “They lost me on the effectiveness of the masks when they released prisoners instead of just giving them masks.”
It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began advising individuals to wear masks in public to help limit the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Since then, the evidence for mask effectiveness has only grown, with a majority of the scientific literature finding that widespread mask usage can reduce community transmission of the coronavirus.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, misinformation about masks continues to abound. Health Feedback has fact-checked multiple inaccurate claims made about masks, most falling into one of three categories: claims that masks simply don’t work (see here), claims that masks are dangerous (see here), and claims that are a combination of the first two (see here).
In a recent Facebook post from 2 August 2021, Facebook users made a claim about masks that fell into the first category, stating that they stopped believing masks worked when “they released prisoners instead of just giving them masks.” A related claim from May 2021 was fact-checked by PolitiFact (see here).
As we’ll show below, prisoner releases occurred as a response to rapidly increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in U.S. jails and prisons. This was adopted in conjunction with other measures to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in these environments, including providing face masks to prisoners. Furthermore, scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the efficacy of masks in limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2, especially when adopted together with other measures.
U.S. prison releases during COVID-19
There are currently 2.3 million incarcerated people in U.S. jails and prisons. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that the conditions in these environments promote the spread of SARS-CoV-2 among both staff and inmates. “…it will spread like wildfire, because there’s basically no way in the crowded conditions that exist in current jails and prisons to implement social distancing,” Sonja Starr, a criminal law professor now at the University of Chicago, told Vox in April 2020.
Despite early efforts to keep COVID-19 out, including the suspension of family visits and confining the incarcerated population to their cells, SARS-CoV-2 did make it into prisons and jails. New York’s Rikers Island jail complex had its first case of COVID-19 on 18 March 2020; by 1 April of the same year, 231 inmates and 223 staff members at Rikers were infected by the novel coronavirus.
Rikers was not an isolated case. According to data collected by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers criminal justice in the U.S., and The Associated Press, by December 2020, 1 in 5 prisoners in the U.S. had had COVID-19, compared to 1 in 20 in the general population. The proportion of infected prisoners varied among U.S. states; in both Kansas and Michigan, half of prisoners were infected with the virus. When adjusted for age and sex, the COVID-19 death rate among individuals in state and federal prisons was also three times higher compared to the general population.
For these reasons, in late March 2020, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to allow “at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism” to serve their sentences in home confinement in order to decrease their risk of COVID-19, as well as that of inmates remaining in prisons.
Barr’s memo concerned federal prisons, but similar policies were also adopted at the state level. California’s prison system told The Guardian that in early 2020 they had released 18,300 individuals. The majority were medically vulnerable or with less than a year left on their sentence. By November 2020, at least 120,000 individuals had been released from U.S. prisons and jails into home confinement.
For the majority of U.S. prisoners that were not released, the BOP said that “staff and inmates have been issued masks to wear on a daily basis” in early April 2020, after the CDC recommended masks be worn in public. However, reports suggest that masks were not provided equally across the U.S. In New York prisons, individuals were issued handkerchiefs to tie around their faces, while inmates in Madison County, Alabama, weren’t given masks or allowed to wear them.
An examination of state policies by the Prison Policy Initiative, an American public policy think tank focused on criminal justice, found that only half of U.S. states are requiring prison staff to wear masks at work, and less than a third of states are requiring incarcerated people to wear face masks. And, as the Prison Policy Initiative points out, simply having a requirement for mask use doesn’t mean the requirement is enforced.
Despite differences between states and counties in terms of both issuing face masks and requiring their use, the claim that prisoners weren’t given face masks is inaccurate. As such, the logic of the claim–that masks don’t work since prisoners were released instead of being given masks–is invalid.
Masks work, especially when use is widespread and combined with other measures
As mentioned earlier in the review, the majority of the scientific literature agrees that face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19 in communities by limiting the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. As explained in a previous claim review by Health Feedback, COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through respiratory liquid particles carrying SARS-CoV-2, and masks work as a physical barrier that reduces both the release of infectious liquid particles from infected individuals into the air and the chance that these same liquid particles will infect someone.
As such, masks have the advantage of both protecting the wearer (particularly when using medical masks) and the people around them. And the greater the percentage of people wearing masks in a community, the more protected everyone is; a number of studies showed a reduction in COVID-19 cases and deaths in countries and U.S. states with mask mandates or universal mask use compared to regions without mask mandates.
As explained in another Health Feedback claim review, though face masks aren’t 100% effective, when they’re combined with other measures, such as physical distancing and quarantine, individuals are increasingly protected. One of the reasons the prison releases occurred is because common measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing and avoiding crowds, are particularly difficult to achieve in U.S. jails and prisons.
The Facebook post questioning the efficacy of masks because of U.S. prison releases contains two inaccuracies. First, it claimed that U.S. prisoners didn’t receive face masks, which isn’t true. Despite regional differences in face mask issuance and enforcement, it’s inaccurate to claim that U.S. prisoners were released due to COVID-19 instead of receiving masks. Furthermore, the majority of U.S. prisoners weren’t released, and mask usage was one of the measures adopted to limit the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
Second, the post claimed that face masks aren’t effective. The scientific literature overwhelmingly concurs on the ability of masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 in communities, especially when their use is widespread and combined with other public health interventions like physical distancing.
- 1 – Howard et al. (2021) An evidence review of face masks against COVID-19. PNAS.
- 2 – Saloner et al. (2020) COVID-19 cases and deaths in federal and state prisons. JAMA.
- 3 – Sterr et al. (2021) Medical face masks offer self-protection against aerosols: An evaluation using a practical in vitro approach on a dummy head. PLos One.