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Study Shows COVID-19 Drove Prison Death Rates 50% Higher

by Keith Sanders

The COVID-19 pandemic is over but not forgotten. Highlighting the virus’s deadly toll on American prisoners, an analysis published by the New York Times on February 19, 2023, tracked the impact of the disease during its first year. The data reveal significantly higher rates of infection and mortality inside state and federal prisons, underscoring how they were unprepared and unequipped to effectively maintain the health and safety of those they incarcerated.

According to the report, 2020 was the deadliest year for prisoners. COVID-19 accounted for a 50% increase in prisoner deaths nationally that year, with six states showing a 200% increase. Overall, death rates from COVID-19 in America’s prisons were twice as high as the national average, as well. Roughly 6,180 prisoners died from the disease in 2020 alone, compared to just 4,240 prison deaths in 2019 from all causes.

That happened despite a decrease in America’s prisoner population by over 100,000, as lockdowns shuttered courts and slowed the inflow of newly convicted prisoners to a trickle.

An August 2022 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) counted over 1.6 million prisoners at risk of contracting COVID-19 when the pandemic hit: 181,300 in custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the remainder held by state prison systems. An aging prison population, deplorable conditions, staffing issues, official indifference and neglect, along with inadequate or nonexistent heath care – all played a role in the high COVID-19 mortality rate of American prisoners.

The rate in 2020 totaled 15 deaths per 10,000 prisoners. Michigan had a rate over twice as high: 32 deaths per 10,000. Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia also notched high COVID-19 death rates in 2020, but they also have a long history of leading the nation in prisoner deaths overall. In West Virginia alone, 46 prisoners died in 2020, an eye-popping rate of 96 deaths per 10,000 prisoners. Of those 42 were over 50 years old, six in their 80s. This reflects an overall aging trend inside American jails and prisons: Roughly 10% of all prisoners in 2009 were 50 or older, while a decade later that figure had climbed to 21%

Aaron Littman, an assistant professor at U.C.L.A. and the acting director of its Law Behind Bars Data Project, said “the pandemic is the story, but it is just part of the story.” The disease’s deadly toll on prisoners was exacerbated by the dismal quality of health care in American lockups.

One common problem: Providers and other medical staff typically view prisoners with suspicion rather than as patients. As noted by Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, “providers will think a patient is malingering or somehow exaggerating their symptoms.” Lack of treatment options, or providing no treatment at all for geriatric and chronic illnesses, also contributed to high COVID-19 death rates.

The startlingly high mortality rates were reached despite widespread lockdowns in prisons and jails, along with visitation suspensions and a dip in the detained population. The root problem that the highly contagious virus exploited is the systemic failure of U.S. carceral facilities to protect those in their care.

Source: New York Times