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Report Shows COVID-19 Reduced Life Expectancy for Prisoners in Florida, Same Likely for Other States

by David M. Reutter

Prisoners have faced a “substantially elevated total mortality risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the elevated risk for COVID-19 infection found in previous studies,” concluded a study titled, “Assessing the Mortality Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Florida State Prisons,” by Neal Marcos Marquez of University of Washington and six other researchers working under the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

Based on those findings, the study’s authors urged prison officials across the nation to “evaluate interventions to reduce the risk associated with COVID-19 and to take steps to minimize the observed discrepancies in negative outcomes between the general population and the incarcerated.”

The study was posted on April 20, 2021 using data from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) between 2015 and 2020. The study’s authors focused on Florida because it was the nation’s third largest prison system with over 80,000 prisoners as of late 2020. Florida is also one of the few state prison systems with available data to evaluate mortality rates in the pandemic period and compare these rates to those observed in previous years.

The study noted that Florida’s general population experienced a 15.5% increase in observed morality trends in 2020. No research had been done to evaluate whether prison populations experienced a heightened all-cause mortality rate. It is well known that from 2001 to 2016 the crude mortality rates in prisons increased due mostly to an aging prisoner population.
For prisoners 45 and older, the leading cause of death include cardiovascular and respiratory causes. Those ailments are known to lead to increased COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. It remains uncertain whether the heightened prevalence of them in prisons contributed to increased COVID-19 deaths.

The main goals of the study were to “(1) document demographic changes that occurred in the Florida state prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic, (2) assess excess deaths that occurred during the months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and their temporal relationship to reported COVID-19 deaths, and (3) quantify changes in the overall mortality rate of the Florida state prison population in 2020.”

The study found a substantial decrease in life expectancy—4.12 years—was observed between 2019 and 2020 amongst Florida prisoners. There was an increase in the mortality rate of 61% to 77% for prisoners 35 or older. The age group of 45-54 saw a year-to-year increase, but the change was not significant.

“Despite a population decline of more than 10,000 people between January and December 2020, FDOC recorded more deaths among the prison population in 2020—590 individuals in total—than in any of the previous five years,” the study found. It also found that mortality rates in 2020 where higher amongst Florida prisoners than “would have been expected given previous years’ morality trends, but the estimated mortality trend was also much greater than that estimated in the Florida population generally or in the overall U.S. population.

To contextualize its findings, the study pointed to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publication that estimated the general U.S. population had a decreased life expectancy of one year from January to June 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19. Yet, the study found Florida prisoners life expectancy declined by 4.12 years.

“This again highlights the inordinately harmful impact of COVID-19 on the health of Florida’s prison population,” the study said. “The staggering rate of excess deaths in FDOC institutions raises the obvious question of what role the 191 COVID-19 deaths played in contributing to this excess.”

While the study focused on Florida prisons, the authors believed its experience with COVID-19 would not differ in other states. They urged prison officials nationwide to act “to avert catastrophic impacts on mortality rates and life expectancy” when faced with pandemics. 



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