USA: Officials Failed to Act When COVID Hit Prisons. A New Study Shows the Deadly Cost

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it wasn’t hard to predict that incarcerated people would be at higher risk. Many prisons and jails are crowded, dirty places with inconsistent access to health care: a breeding ground for the highly infectious virus. But we’re still waiting for an official count of how many more people died because they were behind bars, and the job of documenting the deaths has fallen to a patchwork of research groups and reporters.

This article was published in partnership with The Guardian.

Now, a new national study out of one of these collaborations between the University of California, Irvine and Brigham and Women’s Hospital shows that at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, people inside prisons died almost three and a half times more frequently than the free population.

Over 6,000 incarcerated people died in the first year of the pandemic, researchers found, using numbers they collected from state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A Marshall Project analysis of data the researchers released shows the overall prison mortality rate spiked at least 50%, and potentially exceeded 75%, with roughly 50 or more people dying per 10,000 in prison in 2020.

The virus hit older generations especially hard, the study’s data shows. Not all states shared counts by age. But in the eight states that did, death rates for people aged 50 and older rose far higher than for others, “reaffirming how much more vulnerable older prisoners are,” said the study’s lead author, Naomi Sugie.

Death rates for older incarcerated people spiked in 2020

These death rates are approximated using the number of deaths for every 10,000 people in custody at the start of the year. The 2020 spikes shown probably underestimate the true rise in death rates, since many prison populations fell as the year went on.

Aged 65 or older
In 2020, at least 150 more people in prisons died per 10,000 compared to 2019

Aged 50 to 64
Almost 30 more deaths

Aged 49 or under
About 1 more death

201420192020100200300people in prison400 deaths per 10,00037264734668832868836759936464113405894918710

Source: Marshall Project analysis of data published by the University of California, Irvine and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

At the same time, incarceration rates dropped during the first year of the pandemic, but not because an extraordinary number of people were released. Despite a range of advocates calling for releases — particularly for older adults, who have higher health risks and statistically lower chances of committing a crime — data shows fewer people than in a typical year were let out in 2020. Instead, there was a dramatic reduction in prison admissions.

The slowdown in admissions meant that prison systems reduced the number of younger people exposed to COVID, while the older people already inside were left there. That’s because incarcerated people are generally older than those likely to be sent to prison.

By the end of 2020, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows the number of people in state prisons under 55 fell by 17%, while the 55 and older population was down by 6%.

Prison deaths spiked almost everywhere across the country, varying in magnitude from state to state.

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