1 in 5 US prisoners had COVID-19, 1,700 died

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – One in five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for coronavirus, more than four times the general population. In some states, more than half of detainees have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

As the pandemic enters its 10th month – and as the first Americans begin receiving the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine – at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign. of slowing down. This week, new cases in prisons have reached their highest level since tests began in the spring, far exceeding previous peaks in April and August.

“That’s not enough,” said Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York.

Venters has conducted more than a dozen court-ordered COVID-19 prison inspections across the country. “I still meet prisons and prisons where, when people get sick, not only are they not tested, but they do not receive care. So they get sick a lot more than they need to, “he said.

Now, the launch of vaccines is a difficult decision for politicians and decision-makers. As the virus spreads uncontrollably behind bars, detainees cannot distance themselves socially and are dependent on the state for their safety and well-being.


This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project that explores the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic.


Donte Westmoreland, 26, was recently released from the Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas, where he caught the virus while serving time on a marijuana charge. About 5,100 prisoners were infected in Kansas prisons, the third highest rate of COVID-19 in the country, behind only South Dakota and Arkansas.

“It was like I was sentenced to death,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland lived with more than 100 men infected with the virus in an open home, where he regularly woke up to find sick men on the floor, unable to get up on their own, he said.

“People actually die in front of me because of this virus,” he said. “It’s the scariest sight.” Westmoreland said he sweated, shaking in bed, until he finally recovered six weeks later.

Half of Kansas inmates were infected with COVID-19 – eight times the rate of cases among the general population of the state. Eleven prisoners died, including five at Westmoreland Prison. Of the three prison employees who died in Kansas, two worked at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

In Arkansas, where more than 9,700 prisoners tested positive and 50 died, four out of seven had the virus, the second highest rate of prison infection in the United States.

Among those who died was 29-year-old Derick Coley, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the Cummins Unit’s maximum security prison. Cece Tate, Coley’s girlfriend, said she last spoke to him on April 10 when she said she was ill and had symptoms of the virus.

“It took me an eternity to get information,” she said. Finally, the prison told him on April 20 that Coley had tested positive for the virus. Less than two weeks later, a prison chaplain called on May 2 to tell him that Coley had died.

The couple had a daughter who turned 9 in July. “She cried and said, ‘My father can’t send me a greeting card,'” Tate said. “She told me, ‘Mom, my Christmas won’t be the same.'”

Almost every penitentiary system in the country has significantly higher infection rates than the communities around them. In the facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, one in five prisoners had a coronavirus. Twenty-four state penitentiary systems had even higher rates.

Prison workers were also disproportionately affected. In North Dakota, four out of five prison staff received coronavirus. At the national level, it is one of five.

Not all states release as many detainees as they have tested, but states that test detainees on a large and regular scale may appear to have higher case rates than states that do not.

Infection rates since Tuesday have been calculated by AP and The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization covering the criminal justice system, based on data collected weekly in prisons since March. Infection and mortality rates may be even higher, as almost every prison system currently has significantly fewer prisoners. than when the pandemic began, so rates are a conservative estimate based on the largest known population.

However, as vaccination campaigns begin, there has been a push in some states against early shooting of people in prisons.

“There is no way to go to the prisoners … before they reach the people who have not committed any crime,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis told reporters earlier this month after initial vaccine priority plans in Colorado his state put the prisoners before the general public.

Like more than a dozen states, the Kansas vaccination plan does not mention inmates or correctional staff, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan think tank for prison. Seven states put prisoners close to the front line, along with others living in crowded places, such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Another 19 states placed prisoners in the second phase of the vaccine launch.

Racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system exacerbate the disproportionate tax the pandemic has placed on communities of color. Black Americans are locked in at five times the rate of whites. I am also disproportionate to being infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, and are more likely than other races to have a family member or close friend who died of the virus.

The pandemic “increases the risk for those already at risk,” said David J. Harris, general manager of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

This week, a Criminal Justice Council working group led by former Attorneys General Alberto Gonzalez and Loretta Lynch released a report calling for a reduction in the prison population, improved communication with public health departments and better reporting.

Prisons are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Bedroom-style homes, cafes and open-door doors make quarantine almost impossible. Detention populations are sicker, on average, than the general population, and behind-the-scenes care is notoriously below standard. At the national level, the mortality rate for COVID-19 among detainees is 45% higher than the overall rate.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, public health experts have called for large-scale prison releases as the best way to reduce the virus spread behind bars. In October, the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering published a report calling on states to empty their prisons of anyone who was medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence, or at low risk to public safety.

But the launches were slow and uneven. In the first three months of the pandemic, more than 10,000 federal inmates compassionately called for his release. The guards rejected or did not respond to almost all these requests, approving only 156 – less than 2%.

A plan to reduce the state prison population in New Jersey, first introduced in June, was backed in the Legislature because of inadequate funding to help those released. About 2,200 detainees with less than a year left to serve were finally released in November, eight months after the pandemic began.

California has used a similar strategy to free 11,000 people since March. But state prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county prisons at various times during the pandemic, which simply shifted the burden to prisons. According to the state agency for corrections, more than 8,000 people are now waiting in prisons in California County, which are also hot spots for coronavirus.

“We call this ‘misleading county,'” said John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, whose prison system has one of the lowest COVID-19 cases in the country, with one in seven infected prisoners. But it is still more than three times higher than the state rate.

Prison walls are porous even during a pandemic, with correction officers and other employees traveling in and out every day.

“The exchange between communities, prisons and prisons has always been there, but in the context of COVID-19 it has never been clearer,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor of social medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, who studies incarceration and health. . “We need to stop thinking of them as a separate place.”

Wetzel said Pennsylvania prisons kept virus rates relatively low by widely distributing masks in mid-March – a few weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending them for daily public use – and required that staff and detainees use them properly and consistently. But prisoners and lawyers say the prevention measures on the ground are uneven, regardless of Wetzel’s good intentions.

As the country moves into winter, with growing virus infections, experts warn that unless COVID-19 is controlled behind bars, the country will not control it in the general population.

“If we are to end this pandemic – reduce infection rates, reduce death rates, reduce ICU occupancy rates – we need to address infection rates in correctional facilities,” said Emily Wang, a professor at Yale School of Medicine. report of the National Academies.

“Infections and deaths are extremely high. These are sections of the state and we have to fight it. “


Schwartzapfel reported from Boston and Park in Washington.


This story was corrected to show that the rate of detainees who tested positive for coronavirus was more than four times higher than the general population, no more than four times higher than the general population.