Deaths in prisons skyrocketed during pandemic, analysis finds

At the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, deaths inside state and federal US prisons soared by nearly 50 per cent, according to a new data set, as some states saw death rates more than double.

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

The data, calculated by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles law school, found that overall, 6,182 died in US prisons in 2020, up from 4,240 people the previous year, even as the overall prison population declined.

The sharp uptick in deaths was two times greater than in the US overall, and greater even than the increase in deaths in nursing homes during the pandemic, a key driver of Covid fatalities, according to additional analysis from the paper.

In states like Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and, the worst offender, West Virginia, death totals rose by even greater margins. In West Virginia, there were 96 deaths per 10,000 prisoners during 2020, according to the data.

Factors including overcrowding, slow access to PPE and vaccines, and an aging prison population all drove the deaths, according to researchers. As of 2019, 21 per cent of the US population was older than 50, according to the Justice Department, a population at higher risk from the disease.

As The Independent reported, Covid was a crisis in other US carceral settings, like immigration detention centres.

One study estimated that detainees had a monthly case rate 13.4 times higher than the general population. A Physicians for Human Rights survey of detainees across the country found that nearly all were unable to social distance, and 27 different people reported that when new detainees entered their detention centre, they were not quarantined.

“We had so many cases of coronavirus. There’s just no way you can avoid being contaminated. They kept on bringing people from outside, especially at the beginning,” Gabriel, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, told The Independent in March of 2021, amid Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s shaky initial rollout of vaccine access to migrants. “You will be sleeping, and the next day, you meet someone new sleeping beside you, and he just tells you he was arrested outside and brought in here. We had to be scared about that.”