Coronavirus infecting America’s prison inmates 5 times more than outside, new study finds

Advocates warn inmate infections could spread beyond razor wire.

July 8, 2020, 11:00 AM

The novel coronavirus is now infecting American prison inmates at a rate more than five times higher than in the overall U.S. population, and those numbers are escalating rapidly, according to a new analysis by the UCLA School of Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project and Johns Hopkins.

When adjusted for age, those infected while incarcerated were over than three times more likely to die from coronavirus than those on the outside, the review of available data from state and federal prisons showed, according to the report released Wednesday.

“We were surprised by the size of the gap,” Professor Sharon Dolovich, director of the project, told ABC News. “I think we knew that we were going to find numbers that were disproportionate, but we were all surprised that the disparity is so great.”

Dolovich said she believes the disparity is likely even worse because many prison facilities are still only performing COVID-19 tests on inmates who are already showing symptoms of the virus.

“If you’re a facility that’s only testing people with overt symptoms, then you’re going to miss all of the asymptomatic people,” Dolovich said.

PHOTO: A law enforcement officer walks outside the entrance to The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 6, 2020.
A law enforcement officer walks outside the entrance to The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 6, 2020.
Mike Segar/Reuters

The new findings come as the viral pandemic has been resurgent in nearly two dozen states, and many are being forced to re-impose precautions that help prevent further spread. But in the thousands of jails and prisons across the country where coronavirus has crept inside, inmates and corrections officers are finding it far more difficult to enforce social distancing and other preventive measures.

Some of the worst viral hot spots in the nation have been in prisons and jails. More than 2,400 inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio tested positive, according to figures compiled by The New York Times. The San Quentin State Prison in California has seen 1,587 positive cases, and the Harris County jail in Houston, Texas has reported 1,390 with the illness, the Times data says.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said the bureau has not yet reviewed the new study. But the spokesperson said inmates are being tested more and more as resources are becoming available, and protocols are in place to isolate those who test positive and treat those showing symptoms. The spokesperson added that its prisons follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, noting, "While a prison setting is unique when addressing a pandemic, the care and treatment of an identified positive COVID-19 case is not."

The initial strategy in fighting the virus behind bars involved suspending the movement of inmates from facility to facility within the federal prison system and modified operations to maximize social distancing, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Both federal and state facilities have also instituted the targeted release of inmates to reduce population -- though to varying degrees.

According to an internal memo obtained by ABC News, the Bureau of Prisons extended what it called its phase 7 of the COVID-19 plan. The memo says that inmate intakes are resuming somewhat normally, after removing quarantine sites. The BOP now says that institutions are supposed to designate specific quarantine and isolation areas, where inmates will be held for 14 days and then tested.

BOP is also starting to resume moving inmates between short distances. They say inmates will be quarantined for 14 days before and after the moves as well as tested at each facility. These policies will be in place until July 31. A BOP spokesperson did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment for this report.

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The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that advocates against mass criminalization, analyzed pandemic responses at local jails and state prisons and found jails reduced populations by an average of about 30%, while state prisons showed an average reduction rate of 5%. Some advocates for inmates have promoted the approach, saying reducing inmate populations will not only help keep prisoners and staff safe, but could be crucial to protecting entire communities.

“We have correctional officers, health workers, and other staff going in and out of these facilities every day,” said Sarah Gersten, Executive Director and General Counsel for the Last Prisoner Project. “There’s a risk that they’re going to then spread the virus into their own communities and overwhelm the already overwhelmed healthcare systems.”

Gersten said inmates who are released do not pose the same threat because they are under strict quarantines and are screened prior to getting out.

The Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit whose mission is to reform marijuana-related laws and advocate for the release of people incarcerated on marijuana-related charges. With the onset of coronavirus, Gersten said the group has widening its focus.

“We’ve expanded our program to capture anyone that might be particularly at risk of dying because of COVID,” she told ABC News.

Despite the growing number of coronavirus cases inside prisons, legal advocates told ABC News that the number of inmates being released to help stop the spread does not appear to be increasing. Gersten and her team have been advocating for the early release of prisoners such as Michael Thompson, an inmate Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan.

Doctors diagnosed Thompson, 69, with Type 2 diabetes, placing him in a high risk category for the virus. He has been incarcerated in 1996 and has served more than half of a 42- to 60-year sentence for three counts of selling marijuana and two counts of illegal possession of a firearm. He was 45-years-old at the time of his arrest.

Thompson told ABC News in a telephone interview that he worries day and night about contracting the virus.

“I’m concerned when you don’t have a way to fight it back,” he said.

PHOTO: Michael Thompson is seen here in an undated mugshot.
Michael Thompson is seen here in an undated mugshot.
Courtesy Michigan Department of Corrections

The Michigan Department of Corrections provided face coverings for inmates, but Thompson said he considered them flimsy, so he and other inmates have become creative.

“I made my own mask out of undershorts,” he said. “One of the guys here who sews really good I gave him some brand new undershorts and he made it for me.”

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections says the masks initially provided to inmates were made from excess prisoner clothing, but the department has since started using a custom cotton material.

The virus has changed life inside the prison walls. Inmates have less freedom and fewer contacts with loved ones on the outside.

“It’s a lot of controlled movement,” he said. “No visits for one, and only one unit goes out on a yard at a time.”

The latest information from the Michigan Department of Corrections says nearly 1,300 inmates at Muskegon Correctional Facility were tested for COVID-19. The state says 1,282 tests were negative, none were positive, and nine are pending results. Michigan has not released information for individual facilities, but UCLA data shows just under 2,000 of Michigan’s 38,000 prison inmates have been released since the pandemic began.

Professor Dolovich says she hopes her team’s work will help lead to increased release rates nationwide.

“People inside are scared and the ones who are sicker are often not getting good health care,” she said. “I’m hoping that with the publication of our findings there will be a refocusing on what I think is one of the most urgent crises facing the country right now.”

The Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson said inmates there are provided adequate healthcare. "We have a duty and obligation to care for all prisoners that the courts send to us," Chris Gautz told ABC News. "We spend a lot of time and care and money and energy providing medical care to prisoners."

But Thompson says he’s not sure if he would survive COVID-19 if he contracted the virus.

“Oh no. Prison don’t work that way,” he laughed. “You know, as far as trying to save people. It’s cheaper to let you die.”

ABC News' Luke Barr contributed to this report. This report has been updated.

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