The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant impact on the nation’s prison system, causing higher rates of infection and death compared to the general population.
“The number of US prison residents who tested positive for Covid-19 was 5.5 times higher than the general US population,” according to an analysis led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The study, published as a research letter in JAMA Wednesday, analyzed cases and deaths from March 31 to June 6 using publicly available data from corrections departments websites, news reports and other sources and found large disparities between the two populations.
Researchers said the prison infection rate was “3,251 per 100,000 residents,” while the rate for the general population was around “587 cases per 100,000.”
Death rates in correctional facilities were three times higher at 39 deaths per 100,000 prisoners compared to 29 deaths per 100,000 in the general population, the analysis found.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “While these numbers are striking, we actually think the disparities within prisons is much greater,” said lead author Brendan Saloner, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School.
Saloner said some prisons are not even reporting cases, and worse, others are not testing inmates.
As the pandemic has progressed, officials across the US have identified prisons as major coronavirus hotspots.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, many states released non-violent offenders and let other inmates nearing the end of their sentences out early in trying to stem the tide of infections.
California replaced the top medical officer for the state’s corrections system Monday amid a growing coronavirus outbreak in prisons there. More than 2,200 inmates are infected, with more than half in a single facility at San Quentin State Prison.
Part of the problem in prison facilities is the inability of inmates and staff to follow guidelines from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to help control the virus’ spread, including social distancing at least 6 feet apart, frequent hand washing and avoiding large crowds. The virus can spread more easily in confined living conditions in prisons that are often overcrowded.
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In Ohio in May, 20% of those infected with the deadly disease were prisoners, and in Colorado, one of the state’s largest outbreaks was in a correctional facility.
“Prisoners have a right to adequate protection of their health while incarcerated,” JHU’s Saloner said.
“The reality of these findings shows that we aren’t coming anywhere close to meeting their basic needs. Ultimately, it creates a dangerous situation for the inmates, prison staff, the communities that prisons are located in and in our overall effort to contain the crisis,” he said.
CNN’s Sarah Moon and Christina Maxouris contributed to this report.