One in five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times that of the general population. In some states, more than half of the prisoners 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 to receive a 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 does not show no sign of slowing down. New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far surpassing previous highs in April and August.
“This number is a huge undercoverage,” said Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer of the Rikers Island prison complex in New York City.
Venters has conducted more than a dozen court-ordered COVID-19 prison inspections across the country. “I still come across prisons and prisons where when people get sick they not only don’t get tested, but they don’t get treatment. So they get much sicker than necessary, ”he said.
Now, vaccine deployment poses tough decisions for politicians and policy makers. As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners cannot socially distance themselves and depend on the state for their safety and well-being.
This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic.
Donte Westmoreland, 26, was recently released from Lansing Correctional Center in Kansas, where he contracted the virus while serving time for marijuana. Some 5,100 prisoners have been infected in Kansas prisons, the third highest rate of COVID-19 in the country, behind only South Dakota and Arkansas.
“It was as if I had been sentenced to death,” Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland lived with more than 100 men infected with the virus in an open dormitory, where he woke up regularly to find sick men on the floor, unable to get up on their own, he said.
‘Die in front of me’
“People are actually dying in front of me from this virus,” he says. “This is the scariest sight.” Westmoreland said he sweated, shivering in his bunk until, six weeks later, he finally recovered.
Half of Kansas’ prisoners have been infected with COVID-19 – eight times the rate of cases among the state’s overall population. Eleven prisoners died, including five at the prison where Westmoreland was held. Of the three prison workers who died in Kansas, two worked at the Lansing Correctional Center.
In Arkansas, where more than 9,700 prisoners have tested positive and 50 have died, four in seven have had the virus, the second-highest prison infection rate in the United States.
Among the dead was Derick Coley, 29, who was serving a 20-year sentence at the Cummins Maximum security prison unit. Coley’s girlfriend Cece Tate said she last spoke to him on April 10 when he said he was sick and showing symptoms of the virus.
“It took me forever to get information,” she says. The prison finally 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 Coley had passed.
The couple had a daughter who turned 9 in July. “She cried and said, ‘My daddy can’t send me a birthday card,’” Tate said. “She was like, ‘Mom, my Christmas is not going to be the same.’ ‘
Irregular prison data
Almost all of the country’s prison systems have experienced significantly higher infection rates than the communities around them. In establishments run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, one in five inmates has had coronavirus. Twenty-four state prison systems had even higher rates.
Prison workers have also been disproportionately affected. Four in five prison staff in North Dakota have contracted coronavirus. At national scale, that’s one in five.
Not all states disclose the number of prisoners they tested, but states that test prisoners on a general and regular basis may appear to have higher case rates than states that do not.
Infection rates as of Tuesday were calculated by the AP and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system, based on data collected weekly in prisons since March. Infection and death rates may be even higher, since almost all prison systems have far fewer prisoners today than at the start of the pandemic, so the rates represent a conservative estimate based on the largest known population. .
Yet, while vaccination campaigns are underway, there has been reluctance in some states against the early administration of vaccines to those in prison.
“There’s no way it’s going to the prisoners … before it’s going to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis told reporters earlier this month after the His state’s initial vaccine priority plans put prisoners before the general public.
Like more than a dozen states, Kansas’ vaccination plan makes no mention of prisoners or prison staff, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan think tank on prison data. Seven states put prisoners on the front line, as well as others living in crowded environments like nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Nineteen other states have placed prisoners in the second phase of their vaccine deployment.
Racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system compound the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on communities of color. Black Americans are incarcerated five times as many as whites. They are also more likely to be infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, and are more likely than other races to have a family member or close friend who died from the virus.
The pandemic “increases the risk for those who are already at risk,” said David J. Harris, executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.
This week, a Council working group on Criminal Justice led by former Attorneys General Alberto Gonzalez and Loretta Lynch released a report calling for reducing the prison population, improving communication with public health services and providing better data.
Prison establishments are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Dormitory-style accommodations, cafeterias, and open bar cell doors make quarantine nearly impossible. Prison populations are on average sicker than the general population, and health care behind bars is noticeably substandard.
Nationwide, the death rate from COVID-19 among inmates is 45% higher than the overall rate.
From the early days of the pandemic, public health experts have called for widespread prison releases as the best way to curb the spread of the virus behind bars. In October, the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering released a report urging states to empty their prisons of anyone who is medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence, or posing a low risk to public safety. .
But the exits have been slow and uneven. In the first three months of the pandemic, more than 10,000 federal prisoners requested their release on humanitarian grounds. Directors refused or did not respond to almost all of these requests, approving only 156 – less than 2%.
A plan to reduce the New Jersey state prison population, first introduced in June, has been delayed in the legislature due to insufficient funding to help those who have been released. About 2,200 prisoners with less than a year to serve were finally released in November, eight months after the start of the pandemic.
California has used a similar strategy to release 11,000 people since March. But state prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails at several points in the pandemic, which simply shifted the burden to jails. More than 8,000 people are now waiting in California County jails, which are also hot spots for coronaviruses, according to the state’s correctional agency.
“We call it ‘fuck county,’ said John Wetzel, secretary of corrections for Pennsylvania, whose prison system has one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the country, with one prisoner on seven infected. But it’s still more than three times the rate statewide.
Prison walls are porous even during a pandemic, with prison officers and other staff coming in and out every day.
“The exchange between communities and prisons and prisons has always been there, but in the context of COVID-19, it has never been clearer,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, professor of social medicine at the ‘UNC-Chapel Hill which studies imprisonment and health. . “We have to stop seeing them as a place apart.”
Wetzel said Pennsylvania prisons had kept virus rates relatively low by widely distributing masks in mid-March – weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even started recommending them for daily use in public. – and requiring staff and prisoners to use them correctly and consistently. But prisoners and defenders say prevention measures on the ground are uneven, regardless of Wetzel’s good intentions.
As the country enters winter with an increase in viral infections, experts warn that if COVID-19 is left unchecked 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 intensive care unit occupancy rates – we need to tackle infection rates in correctional facilities,” said Emily Wang, professor at the Yale School of Medicine and co-author of the recent National Academies report.
“Infections and deaths are extraordinarily high. They are wards of the state and we have to face them. “
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