A recent analysis of U.S. prison mortality in 2020 has exposed a staggering 77% increase in death rates from the previous year, shedding light on the profound impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and revealing inconsistencies in reporting incarcerated deaths. The study, published in Science Advances, is the most comprehensive examination to date, encompassing data from 49 state and federal Departments of Corrections. The research, led by Naomi Sugie, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine, underscores the need for improved policies, transparency, and data on prison fatalities.
The study originated from the PrisonPandemic project, initiated in 2020 amid California prison lockdowns due to the pandemic. Sugie and her team, motivated by the lack of communication and transparency during the lockdowns, embarked on an archival project. The findings not only highlight the overall mortality surge but also reveal disparities in how states reported inmate deaths.
While the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported approximately 2,500 U.S. prisoners dying of Covid-19-related causes, the study points out that this figure doesn’t capture the full impact. Increases in natural deaths and other causes, such as suicide, accident, homicide, trauma, or overdose, contributed to the overall spike. Surprisingly, unknown causes saw significant increases in 2020, indicating systemic failures in healthcare provision and increased health risks within prison populations.
The researchers emphasize the systemic failures that heightened illness risks and limited medical care access, attributing these failures to staff shortages and insufficient medical resources. The impact of pandemic-related measures, including lockdowns and solitary confinement, exacerbated mental health conditions among prisoners. The study calls attention to the need for better policies to prevent future pandemics and emphasizes the lack of transparency regarding deaths in prison facilities.
Moreover, the researchers argue that understanding the mortality toll of the Covid-19 pandemic necessitates accounting for incarcerated individuals, given their heightened health risks, economic disadvantages, and higher likelihood of being people of color. Despite the Death in Custody Act Reporting Act, there has been no publicly available information on mortality in U.S. prisons since 2019, highlighting the urgency for improved data transparency and comprehensive policies.