A mortality study released on December 1, 2023, found that the death rate in U.S. prisons spiked 77% during 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not all the increase was directly attributable to the disease.
The study was the most comprehensive yet of the pandemic’s toll on prisoners, drawing data from the federal Bureau of Prisons as well as departments of corrections in 48 states. Lead author Naomi Sugie, a University of California (UC) at Irvine Associate Professor of Criminology, Law and Cociety, traced her involvement to the PrisonPandemic project begun after California prison lockdowns blinkered researchers in 2020.
“We staffed a hotline and started this archival project hearing what people were going through,” she recalled. “And the conditions that people were describing were so dire and upsetting and really just violations of their health [needs] and, some may argue, human rights.”
Along with 10 other researchers from UC Irvine and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Sugie began a detailed comparison of annual prison deaths dating back to 2013. The results showed a spike in prison morality from 2019 to 2020. But gaps in record-keeping meant that some lockups failed to record any cause of death, while other prison systems also omitted the month and age group of victims.
This led researchers to suspect that the pandemic’s impact in prisons was underreported —by a lot. For example, 2,500 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 between March 2020 and February 2021 by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, but the agency failed to account for a significant concurrent increase in “unnatural” deaths chalked up to suicide, accident, homicide, trauma or overdose. In addition, Sugie said she and other researchers were even more concerned about deaths blamed on “unknown” causes—already a high percentage of the deaths reported inCalifornia, Oregon, Missouri, Maryland and New York.
“These steep increases suggest systemic failures that simultaneously increased risk of illness and limited access to medical care,” the authors concluded.
They also faulted pandemic lockdowns and use of solitary confinement in lieu of medical isolation for worsening prisoners’ anxiety and other mental health problems. The researchers also noted that higher rates of positive tests for the disease among prisoners suggest “that prison staff remained important vectors of Covid-19 transmission, despite widespread prison visitor prohibitions and lockdowns.”
“For all of those deaths that are related to the pandemic, for various ways, we don’t know about them because they’re not officially coded as Covid-related to us,” Sugie noted. She added that “a lot of states didn’t test systemically, so even if someone died of Covid, their death may not have been recorded as Covid-related formally,” just as often happened in the unincarcerated population during the same period.
This last point was bitterly contested by some social media reports, which claimed that U.S. hospitals overreported COVID-19 deaths in order to get more federal stimulus money. However, those enhanced reimbursements were available only for treatment of the disease in Medicare patients, and they were not tied to a patient’s death at all.
The report concluded with a call to prevent future pandemics with better policies supported by more data transparency. Despite the Death in Custody Act Reporting Act, they noted, no publicly available mortality data on U.S. prisoners has been released since 2019.
“In a country with extremely high incarceration rates, fully understanding the mortality toll of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States requires accounting for incarcerated people,” the authors declared—especially since prisoners already suffer disproportionate health risks. See: Excess Mortality in U.S. Prisons During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Science Advances (2023).
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