Skip navigation

COVID-19 Deaths in Jails, Prisons Exceed Number of Deaths by Execution From 1990 to Present

There the comparison ends. While executions come after the conclusion of formal legal proceedings, lengthy appeals and involve capital crimes, those who died of COVID-19 while incarcerated were often non-violent offenders, many already elderly, ill or medically compromised.

All COVID-related deaths are tragedies to the individuals and families personally impacted.

Also consider the suffering of prisoners who are forced to live in close proximity often without sufficient cleaning supplies, soap and personal protective equipment, in an environment where medical care is often an afterthought. A case of the virus will result in suffering generally alleviated only by Tylenol.

The entire purpose of prison is to confine, render powerless, and dehumanize those behind bars, and subject them to the whims of their jailors, who control every aspect of their daily lives. This level of control extends also to when — and if — they will be given medical treatment. However, prison staff have not gone untouched either, with at least 93 reported deaths from the coronavirus as of mid-November.

Add to the prisoners’ physical suffering the pain of isolation while in “quarantine,” (which sometimes means solitary confinement). That leaves anguished family members unable to communicate with their loved ones for long periods of time, all the while being denied timely updates from prison staff, who frequently cite “security” concerns.

The number of infected prisoners is staggering. According to The Marshall Project, which gathers and records these statistics, “by Nov. 17, at least 197,659 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, an 8 percent increase from the week before.”

And “New infections the week of Nov. 17 reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic after rising sharply the week before.”

Prisoners in both the state and federal prison systems have been severely impacted. Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and the federal prison system each saw more than 1,000 prisoners test positive, while Texas prisons recorded 2,000 new cases.

Texas had over 25,000 cases and 166 deaths; Florida, 17,000 cases and 22 deaths; and federal prisons, 22,000 cases and 146 deaths by November 10. No state has been spared, with Ohio having 11 deaths, California, 82 deaths, Georgia, 79 deaths, Michigan, 74, and New Jersey 59, and all these numbers continue to climb.

Many medical researchers note that even those who have “recovered” will likely suffer the aftereffects of the virus for the rest of their lives, including shortness of breath and heart damage, and it is highly unlikely that prison medical staffs will have sufficient staff and resources to treat these health-compromised individuals.

Although the American justice system has grown quite efficient at arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating 20% of the world’s prisoners, while having only 5% of the world’s population, it has been less effective in protecting the helpless and vulnerable individuals it chooses to confine from the ravages of a virus that spreads rapidly from person-to-person in jails and prisons, sentencing many of those to death as surely as those executed for capital crimes.