The first comprehensive count of prison fatalities in the Covid era shows that deaths in state and federal prisons in the U.S. rose by nearly 50 percent in the first year of the pandemic, exceeding estimated increases in deaths in hard-hit nursing homes, the New York Times reports. In six states, prison deaths more than doubled. While there was ample evidence of Covid hot spots behind bars at the time, the new analysis shows how quickly the virus spread through crowded prisons 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. 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.
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. 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. “Clearly the pandemic is the story, but it is just a part of the story,” said Aaron Littman, an assistant professor and the acting director of the U.C.L.A. Law Behind Bars Data Project. Even some states with typically lower death rates saw a surge. Michigan and Nevada both had about 70 fatalities per 10,000 inmates in 2020, up from about 30 the previous year. In New York, an early epicenter of the pandemic, the rate rose to 32 deaths per 10,000 inmates in 2020, from 25 the year before, while New Jersey recorded 51 deaths per 10,000, up from 21. Texas, which has the largest prison population in the country, had 48 deaths per 10,000, up from 28, and California, with the second-highest number of inmates, had 43 per 10,000 in 2020, up from 32.