A closer look at Covid’s impact on the prison system

We hear a lot about how we should keep ourselves safe as we try to have a new sense of normalcy, but what we don’t hear a lot about is how we keep our prisons safe. The people who are incarcerated are at a higher risk of exposure and communal spread based on their living arrangements within the prison system and no one is addressing this to give the relatives of prisoners any sense of comfort. Unfortunately, the prison set up is restricted to provide a suitable quarantine set up or have inmates practice social distancing as most of them are overcrowded and continues to be a peril to the lives of everyone in the jails and prison system not excluding the prison officers or prison administration as well as the prisoners.


The American Medical Association reported in a journal that incarcerated people are more than 5 times more likely to be infected by the virus than the average person resulting in a higher death rate. As of January, 7 2021 in a study of 433 000 incarceration, there were 1 900 deaths – an average of 39 deaths per 100,00 compared to the national average of 29 deaths per 100 000. Looking at these numbers I have a gut feeling that they are actually worse than what was reported in the AMA journal.


I have not seen a lot of information on what type of testing and the frequency of testing that the prisoners are receiving, and I am looking into the number of infections, detection rate and reporting process. In an alarming article there was indication that at many facilities, people who died after showing symptoms of COVID-19 were not even tested.


The Times published a report that shows some of the largest outbreaks in the country were linked to correctional facilities and California’s San Quentin State Prison had the largest coronavirus cluster in the country. Many of these prisoners will die, as will many other incarcerated people in the United States because of our carceral policies and mass incacerations. The rapid spread of the virus across the prison system is enough to send alarm bells throughout the country calling for the administration to provide an account of the risk management including planning, detection and control of the virus to be made public as it applies to the prisons.

There was a study done at the end of 2018 that revealed the prison custody population in 25 states as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons had more prisoners than beds on their facility. It is a known fact that the prisons have more people incarcerated than they were designed to accommodate, this leads to overcrowding where people are warehoused into small rooms with bunk beds that are 3 beds high and only 2 inches apart. This living arrangement will certainly be a challenge to the social distancing rules designed to keep us safe as we navigate this pandemic.

We should remember that after decades of extreme sentencing, a large share of the state prison population is occupied by older adults today and they are more vulnerable to contracting the virus with the risk of serious complications. Added to this is the lack of social distancing as well as typically poor food quality will not help in building immunity against the virus. I am still looking into the impact of social distancing on correctional facility staff and how this may affect security and other services within the prisons.


The pandemic has impacted prisons globally with a number of outbreaks and clusters spreading through the prison system with the housing density and population turnover in prisons. There is a challenge on the social setup of prison systems globally to address sanitation measures and mitigation measures include reducing prison density in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus.


Prisoners are people too and I think a conversation needs to had to give incarcerated people a level of comfort that they are not stuck in a cell and left to die during the pandemic. These prisoners have real concerns and every right to be angry over the risks of contracting the virus. They know better than anyone else the health services within the prison system before the pandemic and how much the limited service may have been further reduced to compromise their health care provision. If we truly believe that all lives matter, well then incarcerated people MATTER.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 02/16/2021

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