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COVID-19 and Prison By the Numbers

W. Scott Cole

Posted on May 8, 2020 03:37

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It can’t be too bad, right? After all, the number of inmates infected is pretty low when considered as a percentage of the prison population. Much lower than in the free world. Every department of corrections in the nation, including the federal BOP has that one figured out. Don’t test the inmates and the numbers stay low. But the numbers that are beginning to be reported and administration indifference are shocking.

The curve is flattening in the world outside the walls. In the world behind the walls, it’s not even starting to flatten. Inmates are getting sick and dying. States and the federal government have finally been prodded to do some testing, but it took two months of public pressure for those tests to start being administered meaningfully.

On April 22, only a handful of states had begun testing prisoners. The numbers that have come out from the tests and reports since March is an example of what our world would look like if preventive measures had not been taken. In the general U.S. population, there were about 250 confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people. In the prison system as a whole, that number sits at an estimated 696 per 100,000 prison inmates.

In the federal system, the worst outbreak, once testing began, is in a prison in Los Angeles. Of the 1,055 inmates there, 443 have tested positive. That is a staggering 42%. Worse, of the 2,700 tests done in the entire federal system, nearly 2,000 have been positive.  That is an infection rate of almost 75%. Think about what our nation outside the walls would look like if that percentage of the population were to test positive. Chilling, isn’t it?

In the state systems, Ohio takes first place with 3,890 inmates being positive out of a population of 44,257. That equates to a nearly nine percent infection rate. On the other end of the scale, there are 10 states that either reported no COVID cases behind their walls or have just not released any reports.

In total, there have been 14,513 positive tests of prisoners, but remember, that number is the result of a small number of the total prison population. The numbers climbed over 50% in one week because a small handful of states started testing inmates.

One of the reasons for this lack of testing and COVID-19 running unchecked through prisons is what reform advocates have called "deliberate indifference" of staff and administrators. Deliberate indifference is a legal standard that inmates must meet to prove in a lawsuit that they have been injured. To meet that standard, an inmate must prove one. That staff knew a certain action or inaction would cause harm. Knowing that the harm would happen, the staff deliberately acted or failed to act, causing the harm. Knowing that COVID-19 is in prison and failing to attempt to identify the sick inmates would seem to meet this standard.

A second reason would be the lack of medical care for those showing symptoms. One example of this is the Cook County jail in Chicago. Symptomatic inmates are “quarantined” together in one unit until they are well. The only medication they receive is Tylenol.

These people are in prison as punishment for crimes. That punishment should not include sickness and death from COVID-19 because those in charge don’t care enough to help them stay safe.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on May 8, 2020 03:37

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