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August 23, 2020

The new death penalty: COVID has now killed more US prisoners in months than the US death penalty has in the last two decades

The UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project has been doing a terrific job keeping an updated count, via this spreadsheet, of confirmed COVID deaths of persons serving time in state and federal facilities.  As of the morning of Sunday, August 23, this UCLA accounting had tabulated 858 "Confirmed Deaths (Residents)." 

This considerable number is sad and disconcerting on its own terms, but it is even more remarkable given that it amounts to more prisoner deaths than has been produced by carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire period from 2001 to 2020.  According to DPIC data, there were a total of 839 executions from the start of 2001 through today.

Of course, comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage is problematic in many ways.  All persons executed in the US in recent times have been convicted of the most aggravated forms of murder.  The majority of prisoners to die of COVID were not responsible for a death (although, as noted here, some persons on California's death row are part of the COVID prisoner death count).  In a few prior posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes.  Another such offender died just last week according to this BOP press release: Luis A. Velez contracted COVID in FCI Coleman this summer and died on August 18; he was only 58-year-old and had been in federal prison for five years (of a 13-year sentence) after his conviction of possession with intent to distribute meth.

Another problem with comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage relates to that correctional staff do not die from administering capital punishment, but many have died from COVID.  The UCLA spreadsheet currently reports "only" 72 "Confirmed Deaths (Staff).  I am pleasantly surprised that this number is not bigger, but I will be ever troubled by the thought it could have been much lower along with the prisoner death number if more aggressive depopulation efforts were taken to more the most vulnerable and least risky offenders out of the super-spreader environment that prisons represent.

A few of many prior related posts:

August 23, 2020 at 11:23 AM | Permalink


Our Fuehrer has much blood on his hands. Over 170,000 dead and counting. Our great country laid low by a deranged narcissist and his enablers.

Posted by: anon1 | Aug 23, 2020 2:28:13 PM

Worth noting that that is 858 deaths out of 112468 cases with 74604 recoveries, according to the spreadsheet, for a case fatality rate among resolved cases of about 1.2%. According to Wikipedia, the US as a whole has about 165k deaths vs 3148k recoveries, for a case fatality rate among resolved cases of about 5%. So the prisoners are getting it, but they are also surviving better than the general population, likely because on average they tend to be younger.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Aug 23, 2020 9:43:42 PM

I also sense, William, that prisoners even if asymptomatic are much more likely to be tested than the average American. This also connects to the younger general population for prisoners. Not sure this leads to a conclusion that prisoners are "surviving better," but I am sure that close study of the prisoner numbers can deepen our understanding of this dang virus.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 24, 2020 10:42:36 AM

Just chiming in on this thread to say that in our JAMA piece, we reported an adjusted covid death rate (adjusted for age and sex) among prisoners of 3.0x. In other words, if people in prison had the same age distribution as in society as a whole, the death rate would be three times higher. What this tells us is that younger prisoners are not protected by their youth - possibly because of the high rates of comorbidities among people who have done years in prison. In other words, being incarcerated is a major risk factor.

Posted by: Sharon Dolovich | Aug 24, 2020 11:39:41 PM

Here's the link: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2768249

Posted by: Sharon Dolovich | Aug 24, 2020 11:40:31 PM

Anything we should infer from the following stats?

Covid deaths to date:

South Korea 312
Japan 1,209
Vietnam 29
United States 178,000

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Aug 26, 2020 10:25:02 AM

I fear it is only a matter of time before COVID deaths of just incarcerated people in the US will be larger than the total deaths in all of those countries combined, Michael.

I also think it notable that total US COVID deaths over the last six months is more than total homicide victims over the last decade. I will probably do a post on that reality, which I keep thinking about when folks roll out the standard law-and-order rhetoric (and I think if you focused on age of victims, COVID has likely killed more senior citizens than have died from homicide over the last quarter century).

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 26, 2020 10:51:58 AM

If the judges would us their authority given to them by the First Step Act for Compassionate Release to release the vulnerable to home confinement by modifying their term of imprisonment instead of denying all the motion requests due to personal agendas it will be less death penalties imposed by COVID-19. How do we force the judges into this action?

Posted by: Melissa Lowe | Sep 15, 2020 10:01:03 AM

I am a Paralegal

Posted by: Melissa Lowe | Sep 15, 2020 10:01:30 AM

I am a student writing on the COVID pandemic in our prison system, and it's connection to crisis leadership. Do you feel as if our leaders in law (judges, lawyers, politicians, etc) properly or improperly handled this pandemic? If improperly, how could they have handled it better? Thank you in advance for your opinion.

Posted by: anonstudent | Nov 18, 2020 9:00:24 PM

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In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB