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February 19, 2023

Reviewing pandemic-era increases in prison deaths

This new New York Times piece provides a review of the increase in prison deaths reasonably attributed to the COVID pandemic. The piece carries this full title: "As the Pandemic Swept America, Deaths in Prisons Rose Nearly 50 Percent:‌ The first comprehensive data on prison fatalities in the Covid era sheds new light on where and why prisoners were especially vulnerable." Here is how the piece starts:

Deaths in state and federal prisons across America rose nearly 50 percent during the first year of the pandemic, and in six states they more than doubled, according to the first comprehensive data on prison fatalities in the era of Covid-19.

The tremendous jump in deaths in 2020 was more than twice the increase in the United States overall, and even exceeded estimates of the percentage increase at nursing homes, among the hardest-hit sectors nationwide. In many states, the data showed, high rates continued in 2021.

While there was ample evidence that prisons were Covid hot spots, an examination of the data by The New York Times underscored how quickly the virus rampaged through crowded facilities, and how an aging inmate population, a correctional staffing shortage and ill-equipped medical personnel combined to make prisoners especially vulnerable during the worst public health crisis in a century.

“There are so many who passed away due to not getting the medical care they needed,” said Teresa Bebeau, whose imprisoned friend died from complications of Covid and cancer in South Carolina. “Most of these people, they didn’t go in there with death sentences, but they’re dying.”

Covid infections drove the death totals, but inmates also succumbed to other illnesses, suicide and violence, according to the data, which was collected by law school researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and provides a more detailed, accurate look at deaths in prison systems during the pandemic than earlier efforts.

Altogether, at least 6,182 people died in American prisons in 2020, compared with 4,240 the previous year, even as the country’s prison population declined to about 1.3 million from more than 1.4 million.

Several of the states with the highest mortality rates in 2020 had a history of elevated prison deaths, including Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia. Researchers said the high numbers — 96 deaths per 10,000 prisoners in West Virginia, more than in any other state — stemmed from long sentences, harsh conditions and relatively poor public health overall.

February 19, 2023 at 08:50 PM | Permalink


I remember reading the articles between March 2020 and December 2021 about what COVID was doing to prison inmates and nursing home residents. Both were horrible places where COVID spread rapidly among the most vulnerable people. Among the most frightening was the article that revealed that more than half of the cases of COVID in Ohio at the time were among the state's prison inmates.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Feb 20, 2023 12:01:41 AM

Jim Görmley,

You raise a valid point about COVID as it relates to prisons. The FBOP has been under modified lockdown operations since March 2020. It is now approaching 3 years of inmates being locked down and not having access to the necessary programming that will ensure a smooth transition into society.

I have received credible complaints from families who have either not been able to visit their relatives or have had the visits reduced to no-contact for an hour through a separated glass for this 3+ years that the country has been dealing with the pandemic. There has also been credible mental health complaints because the population has been under lockdown conditions for so long.

Of course, we will be criticized for being 'soft' on criminals. The better question is what happens when one of these individuals did not get the necessary help they needed while incarcerated and is released and commits some type of crime? Who bears that responsibility? Yes, the person who committed the crime bears it but there needs to be far more oversight into the prison system in general.

Posted by: Eric A. Hicks | Feb 20, 2023 11:08:47 AM

While slightly off-topic, I know that there are legislatures around the country debating bills that would restrict what medical services are available to inmates (mostly culture war-type issues). I can see a lot of 1983 cases over the next decade or so involving legislative restrictions which courts will find to qualify as reckless indifference to the medical needs of inmates.

Posted by: tmm | Feb 20, 2023 11:50:45 AM

Eric A. Hicks,

I’m not sure who you are referring to with criticism of being soft on criminals, but if me, you would be wrong.

The prison system has a responsibility to keep inmates safe and healthy to the best of their ability.

Welcome to the “dark side,” though. You appear to be against the leftist authoritarian “lockdown” mentality that our supposed betters in government put us through. The inmate population is just one part of that.

If you think what happened in our prisons was bad, wait until you see what they did to the kids.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 20, 2023 12:10:47 PM

Eric A. Hicks --

"The better question is what happens when one of these individuals did not get the necessary help they needed while incarcerated and is released and commits some type of crime?"

The main barrier to committing crime by a huge measure is a person's conscience. No prison and no rehab program can give you a conscience. You have to get that on your own.

Almost everyone, of all races and economic backgrounds, has one. Those who don't, or have it but don't care to use it, need to be segregated from the rest of us. We have the power and the right to do this. That is what criminal law is mainly about.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 20, 2023 1:28:30 PM

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