People incarcerated were at great risk of sickness and death during the Covid-19 pandemic. The inability to quarantine or practice social distancing, together with overcrowding, imperiled the lives of many people incarcerated in jails and prisons.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, incarcerated people were infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate. The death rate of inmates (39 deaths per 100,000) was also higher than the national rate (29 deaths per 100,000).
Nearly 160,000 incarcerated people were infected with coronavirus as of August 2020 and at least 1,002 died. The rate was probably much higher since jails and prisons conducted limited testing on incarcerated people. Many facilities would not even test incarcerated people who died after showing symptoms of Covid-19.
The five largest outbreaks in the United States were linked to correctional facilities, including Marion Correctional Institution, with 2,443 cases, Miami-Dade County Jail, with 2,099 cases, and Ohio’s Pickaway Correctional Institution, with 1,791 cases. The largest known coronavirus cluster in the country was at California’s San Quentin State Prison where more than 2,600 incarcerated people and staff were infected and 25 incarcerated people died.
The virus spread rapidly in prisons and jails across the country. In Texas, when the state began testing every incarcerated person in June 2020, the number of infected prisoners and staff more than quadrupled (to 7,900). By September 9, 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported more than 21,000 positive cases and 145 deaths.
Nearly 60% of the 1,400 men incarcerated at Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility tested positive for Covid-19—that represented more than 785 positive cases and 14 deaths. Lakeland was like hundreds of other prisons in America in its design and structure and the makeup of its incarcerated population. Located in Coldwater, it housed 1,403 people who had been sentenced to spend years, decades, or the rest of their lives in prison, many of whom would die there.
Because prisons have more people incarcerated than they were designed to hold, incarcerated people are crammed into dorms and warehoused in rooms with bunks sometimes three beds high and only inches apart.
Social distancing was not an option during the pandemic under these conditions. At Lakeland and many other prisons, it was impossible to quarantine large numbers of infected prisoners. As a result, the risk of infection for imprisoned people and correctional staff was extremely high.
After decades of extreme sentencing, older adults made up a larger share of the state prison population than people age 18 to 24 during the pandemic. Older people were at a higher risk of serious complications from Covid-19. Such older people in prison were more likely to be in poor health and have limited access to quality medical services, which increased the risk of death.
“Tough on crime” policies including three-strikes laws and truth-in-sentencing schemes dramatically increased sentences for people convicted of felonies and significantly reduced eligibility for parole. Accordingly, the percentage of people in state prisons who were 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016—to nearly 150,000 older people incarcerated in state correctional facilities.
Generally, people in prison—where a lot of time is spent sitting around and food is typically poor quality—tend to be in worse health than those outside prison. Lack of access to quality medical care means that older people in prison suffer more often from chronic health conditions like hypertension, asthma, and diabetes that increased the risk of serious complications from the coronavirus.
The Covid-19 crisis also reduced the number of correctional staff, and in many places states were unable to provide adequate security, which led to more violence and abuse within jails and prisons.
Jails are largely filled with people who have not been convicted of a crime while they await trial, many of whom need medical care and social services that jails fail to provide. Even without a public health crisis, many people in jail are denied adequate medical care.
Cook County Jail in Chicago, one of the nation’s largest jails, reported a rate of coronavirus infection that was higher than almost anywhere else in the country, with more than 1,018 people testing positive. Miami-Dade County Jail had the second-largest cluster of cases nationwide, with 2,443 cases.
A federal court ordered the Orange County Jail in Southern California to follow CDC guidelines to protect incarcerated people after the jail, which housed over 3,000 pretrial detainees and inmates, saw an increase of more than 300 confirmed Covid cases in a little more than a month.
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