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New Study Documents Startling Spread of COVID-19 in American Prisons and Jails

In the United States, the incarcerated typically live in overcrowded facilities, with poor ventilation and insufficient access to masks and soap. They are disproportionately likely to have medical conditions that put them at high risk if they get the virus. And every day, staff and trustees move through the prison, spreading the risk of infection to every housing unit. 

Since the start of the pandemic, prisoners’ advocates, along with incarcerated people and their families and communities, have been warning that, once COVID-19 gets into a prison, it is likely to spread quickly. 

Now we have the data that proves them right. In a study published on July 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, our research team analyzed data collected by the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project from every state’s Department of Corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons. We found that between March 31 and June 6, coronavirus case rates grew by an average of 8.3% per day. By comparison, the overall U.S. rate grew by 3.4% during that period. As of June 8, there were 5.5 times more cases per capita of coronavirus in prisons than in the general U.S. population. 

The findings on fatalities are just as disturbing. Deaths of prisoners attributable to coronavirus were 34% higher than those of the U.S. population, despite the fact that people over age 65—who account for 81% of the coronavirus deaths in the U.S.—make up a much smaller share of the prison population. We estimate that, if prisons had the same age and sex distribution as the country, mortality in prisons would be three times higher than the overall U.S. rate.

If anything, our findings understate the true scale of the spread and impact of the virus inside prisons, for one simple reason: Many prisons have conducted few, if any, tests. National testing data also is not comprehensive. But there are now numerous prisons where mass testing has taken place and, in several cases, alarmingly high numbers of people have tested positive. In April, at Ohio’s Marion Prison (population 2,600) 2,300 tests were administered and 87% tested positive. In June, Arkansas’ Cummins Unit Prison, with a population of 1,876, reported 963 positive cases, an infection rate of 51%. No free world community is likely to come close to these levels of viral penetration.

We suspect that our findings on death rates too will prove to have been undercounts. In several DOCs, people who die without confirmation of COVID-19 infection are not included in the posted data on fatalities, even when all signs point to coronavirus as the cause of death. More broadly, people who need medical care for health complications other than COVID are finding it hard during this period to access necessary treatment. Some people will therefore die inside, if not from the virus, then because of its impact on health care delivery more generally. 

Clearly, current strategies for containing viral spread inside carceral facilities are not working. Bolder steps are required if we are to protect people in custody from dying preventable deaths.

The data supporting our findings dates from the start of the pandemic. It was gathered by the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, which was launched in the earliest days of the crisis to support the lawyers and other advocates who were mobilizing to use every available lever to get people released from custody. The UCLAW Project started small. But as data emerged as key to advocacy efforts, it grew exponentially. It now tracks a wide range of metrics, including testing, infection rates and COVID deaths in every prison system in the country, as well as those jails that report this data; viral spread and impact in youth facilities and immigration detention; and COVID-driven releases from jails and prisons. 

On this last measure, as of July 23 our data shows that at least 34,756 had been released from U.S. prisons as a response to the coronavirus, as well as 62,256 from jail. Tracking releases has proved challenging, since corrections agencies do not publicize this information. These numbers are therefore almost certainly undercounts.

In addition to these more quantitative measures, the UCLAW Project also maintains an ever-expanding database of legal filings and court orders related to COVID in jails and prisons, along with a compilation of grassroots organizing campaigns, official responses of all kinds to demands for releases, fundraisers and additional resources developed by others.

The goals of the Project, directed by Sharon Dolovich, are twofold. First, the aim is to learn as much as possible about what is actually happening on the ground, both for public education purposes and for use in advocacy. Every day, a wide range of users—journalists, academics, advocates, activists, government officials, oversight officials, and family members of incarcerated loved ones—consult the data the UCLAW team are tracking. 

Second, and as a longer-term matter, the aim is to create a comprehensive trove of materials relating to the intersection of the coronavirus and incarceration. The events of this pandemic will be the object of study for decades to come, by historians, policy analysts, public health specialists, journalists and others. This Project seeks to preserve all available resources that will be relevant to creating the fullest possible picture of what happened during the pandemic to the more than 2 million people in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. There should be no hiding from the catastrophe created when 21st century American incarceration met COVID-19.