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Study Finds Prison Deaths Soared 77% In Pandemic's First Year

A study of U.S. prison deaths at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 has found that mortality rates soared by 77% relative to 2019, more than three times the increase in the general population. The study, published by Science Advances, is the most comprehensive analysis of in-custody deaths since 2020. The report found that “COVID-19 was the primary driver for increases in mortality due to natural causes; some states also experienced substantial increases due to unnatural causes," the Guardian reports. The report was compiled using data from record requests and some publicly available data, when necessary, from 49 state and federal corrections departments. Lead author Naomi Sugie of the University of California at Irvine told Courthouse News that the actual toll of COVID-19 in the prison system had been little understood.


“We staffed a hotline and started this archival project hearing what people were going through in California prisons,” Sugie said. “And the conditions that people were describing were so dire and upsetting and really just violations of their health and, some may argue, human rights.” Sugie began studying the effect of COVID-19 in California prisons after they imposed containment lockdowns in 2020. The Prison Pandemic project found that the institutions reduced communication and transparency down to zero with some facilities not recording causes of death that year at all. The authors write that there has been no publicly available information about mortality in U.S. prisons since 2019 despite the Death in Custody Reporting Act passed in 2000 (reauthorized in 2014) that requires the collection of information regarding the death of any person who is under arrest, en route to be incarcerated, incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, state prison, or other local or state correctional facility.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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