Assessing the relationship between imprisonment and the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is the subject of a December 2020 report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit, non-partisan advocacy group dedicated to exposing the harmful effects of mass incarceration.
Researchers Gregory Hooks and Wendy Sawyer, who conducted the analysis for PPI, set out to answer this question: “Just how much of an impact did incarceration have on COVID-19 caseloads as the pandemic spread over the summer of 2020?”
The answer they found was shocking: From May 1 through August 1, 2020, there were 566,804 infections that could be traced to correctional facilities in the U.S.
This estimate dwarfs the number of cases reported inside correctional facilities, which a database maintained by The Marshall Project estimated at around 68,000 during the three-month period. Considering an estimate of community transmission of the virus from them, prisons and jails are revealed to be the source of 13 percent of all the infections that the country added during those months.
To reach this conclusion, Hooks and Sawyer utilized data from The New York Times that tracked confirmed coronavirus infections across the U.S., along with statistics from the federal Census Bureau’s 2010 surveys. (The researchers did not use current census data because it does not provide a geographic breakdown of the incarcerated population at the county level.)
Their analysis evaluated the relationship between something called incarcerated population density (IPD) — which measures the number of prisoners per square mile — and COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the same geographic area. What they found was that counties with higher concentrations of incarcerated people saw more COVID-19 cases than those with lower concentrations.
Outside of metropolitan areas, those counties with no prisoners — an IPD of zero prisoners per square mile — saw a total of 794 new cases per 100,000 residents over the summer of 2020. But those with the highest concentration of prisoners — an IPD of 3.44 prisoners per square mile — had a rate over 35 percent higher, recording 1,075 new cases per 100,000 residents.
To get a handle on what was happening inside metropolitan areas, the researchers couldn’t look at an individual county by itself, since residents move back and forth between neighboring counties in the same metropolitan area. So, they devised a method to capture these cases of “community transmission.”
Again, they found that just having a prison in a county resulted in higher rates of coronavirus infection. Those metro counties with the highest concentration of prisoners — equating to an IPD of 2.29 prisoners per square mile — recorded 976 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly 27 percent higher than the 770 cases reported in metro counties with no prisoners.
Of the more than half-million cases that prisons and jails contributed to the country’s total in the summer of 2020, almost half came from just three states: California (113,969 cases), Florida (92,981), and Texas (55,017).
Looking at the rate of infections per 100,000 people, Texas drops out of the top five states, and California drops to fourth place, with 291. Florida remains in second place at over 451. The District of Columbia, at 526.9 additional cases per 100,000 residents, held the top spot in that ranking.
Making the underlying problem of over-incarceration worse were mismanaged responses to the pandemic — both inside and outside prisons and jails — Hooks and Sawyer note. They point to South Korea and Japan, two countries with similar population densities to that of the U.S. Both managed to keep their COVID-19 infection rates below 50 per 100,000 people. At that rate, they concluded, “there might have been fewer than 20,000 cases” in the U.S. that could be traced to a correctional facility because the virus would have had a harder time spreading outside prison walls.
Still, what was happening inside those walls has clearly exacerbated the problem in the U.S. Inadequate or nonexistent health care for prisoners, along with overcrowding — resulting from a reliance on incarceration to solve social problems — have also contributed to the crisis. To that end, Hooks and Sawyer argue for an “increased use of clemency, parole expansion, and other legal mechanisms to depopulate prisons and stop the virus from spreading behind bars.”
Among numerous reasons to reform America’s criminal justice system, their report now adds a significant public health rationale. Mass incarceration has proven to be not only unsuccessful in deterring criminals but also deadly to American communities.
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