In early 2020, Alexis Triplett watched the news coming out of China, her gaze set on a TV inside her cell in La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado. People over there were getting sick with a mysterious respiratory disease. “I heard about it coming to the States, and I’m like, ‘Okay, that kind of sucks,’” she says. On March 5, the first confirmed COVID-19 cases appeared in the state.

Restrictions soon locked down the world beyond her walls. Denver canceled its St. Patrick’s Day parade; concert venues closed; ski resorts suspended operations, then bars, restaurants, and schools. Finally, the governor ordered everyone to stay home. Triplett, of course, had no choice but to remain where she was: a prison, where cramped conditions make even basic public-health guidance hard to implement. Just before Colorado’s outbreak, La Vista housed 694 male and female inmates, slightly below its capacity of 707; even so, seven other women shared Triplett’s cell.

Prisons’ crowded, communal nature is the stuff of transmission nightmares. People live, work, eat, and recreate together—often in poorly ventilated buildings. “There are constantly new people coming in and out of this very tightly occupied setting,” says Andre Montoya-Barthelemy, a doctor of occupational medicine who has studied inmate well-being for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “There are transfers from other facilities. There are medical and other staff who come in and have their own exposures.”

Even something as seemingly straightforward as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggestions for hand hygiene present challenges. Prisons often ban alcohol-based sanitizer because of the potential for abuse. Inmates sometimes must buy soap from a commissary.

For those reasons, correctional facilities have always been a disease’s dream environment. One of the first documented outbreaks of the 1918 influenza pandemic happened in San Quentin State Prison, the infamous and overpopulated penitentiary where Johnny Cash sang. Back then, the deadly pathogen swept through three separate times, when new inmates brought it in as a passenger.

It’s no surprise that US prisons quickly became COVID hotspots. The bug sneaked inside San Quentin in late May 2020, when the facility took in 121 men from a Chino, California, prison. The latter had not tested them recently enough to ensure they were virus-free. Within a month, more than one-third of San Quentin’s approximately 4,000 inmates and more than 100 of its 1,600-person staff had tested positive. According to an analysis by the Associated Press and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism venture focused on criminal justice, more than 340,000 prisoners and 90,000 facility staff have tested positive to date.

Infections within the correctional system don’t always stay there. They can drive community spread—especially through staff, who go home at the end of a shift. In Marion County, Ohio, where an outbreak sickened more than 80 percent of inmates and 160 staff by the end of April, health officials traced around half of the county’s 112 cases outside of the prison back to it.

Local jails—where people have shorter stays, often while awaiting trial—present another risk. A June 2020 study published in Health Affairs found that arrestees cycling in and out of Cook County Jail in Chicago were associated with 15.7 percent of coronavirus cases statewide. (The Chicago Department of Public Health and Cook County Sheriff’s Office dispute those conclusions.) An April 2020 modeling report from the American Civil Liberties Union, in collaboration with data experts from three universities, found that omitting jails from predictions (which most public models do) could mean underestimating forecasted deaths by between 19 and 98 percent, depending on how well communities practice social distancing.

Given the propensity for spread, governors, judges, and state and federal corrections departments increased options for early release during the first months of the pandemic. Prisons stopped accepting new arrivals, and courts sent fewer people to the slammer, resulting in most of the overall decrease in the prison population between March and June 2020. Now inmate advocates and public health experts hope that officials will continue to reexamine who should really be inside and for how long.

Across the country, what prisons have done right—and very wrong—to control the pandemic could point the way to a more just justice system. One that’s better for inmates like Triplett, who watched the news, wondering how long it would take COVID-19 to reach inside La Vista’s walls.

Triplett had lived in la vista since 2014. Then 29, she began a 20-year sentence for burglary and car theft as part of a crime ring that stashed hundreds of stolen items in a suburban Colorado storage unit. She’d be 49 when she got out. “I just felt everything was hopeless,” she says.

She was mad at the system, at her place in it. She would cuss out correctional officers. Then one of them asked her about her life before La Vista.

No one with any authority had ever wanted to know her that way. And so she summed up her childhood: She’d often lived with extended family, because her young mother had gotten hard into drugs. Triplett ran away twice, at 13 and 14, the latter time all the way to California.

She started smoking weed, then moved on to psychedelics, ecstasy, and finally meth. When she was high, she craved excitement. “I always need my mind stimulated,” she says. “When I got bored, I expressed it in an unhealthy way.” By which she means doing things like stealing cars and breaking into houses. The spoils supported her habit, spiraling into a vicious cycle that got her arrested more than a dozen times between ages 19 and 29.

“I just took it to the max,” she says, although along the way she also took herself to Pikes Peak Community College for business coursework. But then, in 2014, her crimes caught up with her. She doesn’t mind repeating this story, and she’s also not exactly mad anymore about her time at La Vista. “I have to abide by whatever to get out of it. I knew the consequences when I did what I was doing.”

Triplett detoxed in jail before she arrived at La Vista, where she went through a group-based rehabilitation program. She began working in the prison kitchen, serving food on the line, toiling in the dish pit, and eventually becoming a “diet cook,” helping make meals for people with special nutritional needs. She earned just $0.80 per day, which she used to buy soap (typically about $1 in the commissary) or phone calls (around $1.80 for 15 minutes for in-state numbers).

She also loved a job she had training dogs, something she hopes to do again someday in her own house. “A lot of them came from shelters,” she says, “so they were broken. We helped them to regain their confidence and to understand humans aren’t bad.”

In early 2019, Triplett joined the inaugural class of an eight-month program run by the nonprofit Defy Ventures Colorado, which trains incarcerated people in business and self-awareness and helps them transition back into society after release. Soon after the course ended, she became eligible under state parole guidelines to apply for early release into a group home, where she’d still be considered an inmate under Colorado Department of Corrections custody. And so, in February 2020, as COVID-19 appeared on her TV screen and made its way to the Centennial State, she submitted her papers to the parole board. While she awaited its verdict, she watched the disease ravage the world.

Triplett didn’t believe the virus spread as easily or made people as sick as the news claimed (although federal statistics would beg to differ). But she did worry about the disparities between the data and safeguards available to her inside and those available to prison staff and locals. She says she didn’t ever hear from officials about La Vista’s testing or infection and quarantine rates. “They didn’t tell us anything,” she says. Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections, refutes that, saying, “Inmates have been provided information from their facility leadership regarding their specific facility situation.” She contends staff posted educational guidance in common areas and on screens where announcements are displayed.

Triplett also reports inequities in personal protective equipment. Management issued face coverings to guards ahead of prisoners. “You guys get masks, but we don’t, because we’re, like, subpar citizens?” she recalls thinking. La Vista eventually corrected that in April, two weeks after the governor asked all Coloradans to don facewear. Staff gave inmates masks that would do their job but that Triplett didn’t find particularly comfortable. “They didn’t fit, and made their ears look like this,” she says, using her hands to push her own into a protruding, elfin shape.

Staff then grouped inmates into fixed cohorts—of eight women, in Triplett’s case—so that if one person became ill, they’d expose only each other. But to Triplett’s thinking, the system had a flaw: Those assigned to maintenance or kitchen crews mingled with people outside their cohorts. “They didn’t really keep people separated, but they wanted the illusion of separation,” she contends. Skinner says all work crews would have been canceled in the event of a positive case.

Incarcerated members and trainees of Defy Colorado at an event
In La Vista Correctional Facility, Triplett (far right) took an eight-month program to learn business and self-awareness skills. Courtesy of Defy Ventures Colorado

Meanwhile, authorities barred all visitors, including volunteers from programs like Defy Colorado, and did temperature screenings and randomized testing of staff. That prevented some exterior hazards from entering, sure, but further isolated the already isolated. “They did give us free 10-minute phone calls once a month, which was cool,” says Triplett. “A lot of people in there don’t have any money.” The result of all these measures was that La Vista kept coronavirus under control. Throughout the spring and summer, no one tested positive.

When COVID does get behind bars, it can sweep through cramped interiors faster than on the outside, infecting the majority of people. In two Ohio prisons, for instance, nearly 80 percent of inmates were sick by late April. The American penal system was operating at around 99.8 percent capacity in 2017, according to the World Prison Brief, a database maintained by the University of London. That was down from 104 percent a few years earlier, but still uncomfortably full when a spiky germ so easily slips from face to face. The American Correctional Association recommends each prisoner have 25 square feet of “unencumbered” area to themselves—in most cases, not enough to keep a safe social distance.

Comparing virus rates on the outside with those on the inside, the COVID Prison Project, a website that tracks infections among the incarcerated, found inmates are about three and a half times more likely to get sick.

It took three weeks for Triplett to hear she’d been approved for release and another three weeks to get her date, the tailest end of April. Her freedom would come with a lot of conditions. She’d have to reside in a halfway house in metro Denver till November—in a room with more than a dozen others, another COVID risk. She couldn’t get a driver’s license or store her own food there. But she could get one “pass” a week: either four hours of freedom to go to a restaurant or store, or 12 hours to visit an approved friend or family member at home. After November, she would become an “intensive supervision parole inmate,” still a ward of the state with an ankle monitor, but able to live independently.

As infections soared nationwide in March and early April 2020, a majority of states, including Colorado, created rules that allowed the release of older people, inmates with little time to serve, those with underlying health conditions, and nonviolent offenders. La Vista let 58 people go. “We started this journey with 1 or 2 percent vacancy, and we’re now at over 18 percent vacancy,” says Dean Williams, the Department of Corrections’ executive director, about statewide incarceration levels.

Federal and state prison populations dropped by 8 percent between March and June, from 1.3 million to 1.2 million, according to an Associated Press and the Marshall Project analysis. Some of that was because people like Triplett walked out the door. More significant was a relative pause on putting more people inside. According to analysis from the data firm Appriss, by the end of May, jail bookings were down by 45 percent. In some states, Colorado included, new policies encouraged law enforcement to avoid arresting people for low-level offenses.

For those still locked up, the World Health Organization and the CDC issued a series of recommendations that would help prevent transmission. New prisoners and those who have been exposed should quarantine for two weeks—and if solitary confinement rooms must be used for that, maintain customary freedoms like TVs and phone calls. (During the early stages of the pandemic, use of solitary increased by 500 percent, according to a report from the Unlock the Box campaign, which advocates ending the practice.) Prison staffs should make soap readily available and create not-just-for-show cohorts. In addition to those agencies’ guidance, maintenance crews should bring air systems into the 21st century with state-of-the-art ventilation equipped with HEPA or MERV filters that trap pathogens. And administrators should figure out how to keep people connected virtually and control spread in hotspots.

“The other thing that has to be on the table is robust testing,” says Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina who studies the intersection between health and incarceration. “Universal testing. And a long-term plan for repeated testing so you can continue to keep COVID out of the building.” Toward that end, she helps run the COVID Prison Project initiative to maintain a national database on screening.

Another priority is making test results public: unshuttering prisons’ windows so that they’re accountable to their communities, not just state and federal corrections agencies. They could forge collaborations with local public-health organizations—especially important because the facilities aren’t islands. The people inside and those who drive past their gates live in the same superpod. “Jails and prisons are a part of our larger health system,” Brinkley-Rubinstein says.

Imagine, she says, a world in which we had information about how many inmates got the flu, or had chronic diseases, and how they were being tested and treated. “That creates this overlay of accountability,” Brinkley-Rubinstein says, so that advocates, loved ones, and surrounding towns know whether incarcerated people—who can’t really advocate for themselves—are receiving adequate care and protection. And so that prisons don’t contribute to illness within the community.

One thing, though, remains constant, whether a state or the federal government or a for-profit company runs a prison, and whether soap is gratis and an air filter occupies a duct: If you decrease the surplus population, those who remain are safer from respiratory illnesses. It’s as true behind bars as it is at entry-limited Whole Foods or half-capacity Chili’s.

Triplett, released April 29, is glad to be part of the surplus that got out. She may be more prepared for life on the outside than most. That’s due in part to her participation in Defy Colorado, the program that helps people like her jump to their feet when released. Run by Stacey Putka, who used to provide counseling to men on parole, it’s just one of many education schemes—public and private—to help those in US prisons have a better life once they’re not.

Putka cofounded the project in 2018 because she saw how many recently released inmates had entrepreneurial mindsets but not the training or connections for solid employment. “You’re completely cut off from community and society, and the only people you interact with are other incarcerated people and corrections officers,” she says. Plus, getting the requisite documents in order—driver’s license, Social Security card, birth certificate—isn’t simple even under normal circumstances. Defy Colorado helps its graduates get those papers so they can put their classes to use.

According to a RAND Corporation study, inmates who take part in “correctional education programs” are 13 percent less likely to go back after release and 13 percent more likely to find a job. More than 80 percent of state prisons offer some sort of educational option, although only around half of incarcerated people participate. In most states, such programs net inmates “earned time”—basically days shaved off their sentences. Between the start of Putka’s program and the onset of the pandemic, only nine of her 200 participants got out. Things picked up in early 2020, when La Vista released 10 of her graduates.

Defy Colorado helps participants establish stable, hourly-wage lives. Many parolees used to walk door-to-door to restaurants looking for dishwashing or server positions. They often also went to libraries or workforce centers to search for jobs online. All of these are more difficult, if not impossible, in COVID times. The program gave Triplett and the other graduates Chromebooks and smartphones for safe hunting and pointed them toward essential-worker positions.

A former Colorado inmate in road crew gear
On the outside, Triplett moved into a halfway house and got a job on a road crew. Courtesy of Alexis Triplett

On a shockingly hot day, the warmth radiating from a Denver strip mall’s asphalt, Triplett walks from her halfway house to meet me at Chili’s, texting that she’ll be the one wearing black leggings and a brown shirt. She’s excited about her food possibilities now; in prison, she’d sign up for different diets—kosher, vegetarian—just for the variety. She orders fajitas (yes to guacamole) and smiles, her long dark hair framing her face, unmasked but appropriately distanced.

“Six and a half years in, and I got out to a zombie apocalypse,” she says. It’s mostly a joke: She doesn’t mind this particular apocalypse, actually. After life on the inside, with very few options, it’s kind of nice to have only slightly more at first.

Defy Colorado was key to teaching Triplett about herself and about how to be part of a business before perhaps starting her own. “They covered everything from broken families to character development,” she says. “Applications, résumés, how to disclose your felony to an employer.”

Local business leaders and potential business lenders came to coach students on their own entrepreneurial ideas, which they pitched in a Shark Tank–style event at the end of the program. Triplett’s would be a hit on Etsy: art made by prisoners and recovering addicts, printed on clothing and sold with a written story about how the painting or drawing came to be. “So often, you see art and you just think, ‘What was the artist thinking when they made that?’” she says.

But Triplett, like all Defy Colorado graduates, can’t skip straight to startup life. First comes a job, and she’s managed to find herself a good option: She joined a road-construction crew, helping close down streets to traffic.

She likes the gig. She gets to be outside, and it pays $16 per hour—enough to treat herself to McDonald’s and pay for the unlimited phone plan she bumped up to after hitting her data cap watching movies. She loves having a phone. There’s a lot online, and in the physical world, that she can now explore 14 years earlier than she ever expected to. Once she’s independently established, she’ll be eligible to join Defy Colorado’s business incubator, which connects graduates with the local business and funding community. Then she’ll be ready to pursue her artwork idea.

Someday, when she is allowed out of state, she wants to travel someplace like Tennessee, which she’s heard is pretty. Or maybe Switzerland. “I have never been camping,” she continues. “I want to go. I have never been fishing. I want to learn. I like hiking. I like boulder jumping.”

She describes a spot near a place called Palmer Lake, just north of Colorado Springs, and pulls up pictures she’s downloaded to her smartphone, taken during the before times. Not the pre-pandemic years but her personal before times.

In one photograph, she’s surrounded by rocks, blue sky, open space. She is smiling, young, glad for the chance—then as now—to hop from one obstacle to the next.

Updated 1/25/21: This story has been edited to reflect that The Chicago Department of Public Health and Cook County Sheriff’s Office dispute the findings of the Health Affairs study on community spread from Cook County Jail.

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Transformation issue of Popular Science.