Coronavirus in State and Federal Prisons

Coronavirus in State and Federal Prisons

September 1, 2020

Last week the Marshall Report issued a new report on the ravages of the coronavirus in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  It is not a pretty picture.  The report begins this way: 

By Aug. 25, at least 108,045 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 6 percent increase from the week before.

New cases among prisoners reached an all-time high in early August after slowing down in June. The growth in recent weeks was driven by big jumps in prisoners testing positive in Florida, California and the federal Bureau of Prisons as well as outbreaks in Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

Cases first peaked in late April, when states such as Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners. Those initiatives suggested that coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known.

The report ranks the prison systems of all the states along with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  The BOP ranks third with 12,525 cases.  Virginia ranks 10th with 2,621 cases.  Maryland ranks 25th with 695 cases.  Another important statistic is the number of cases per 10,000 prisoners.  Virginia has 917 cases per 10,000 prisoners while the BOP has 810 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  Maryland has 364 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  

12 states have more than 1000 cases per 10,000 prisoners with Arkansas leading all the states with 3,153 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  Ten states have less than 100 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  

Some of these statistics reflect the level and the intensity of the virus in that particular state. At the same time, we can infer that some states have done a much better job in taking steps at protecting both prisoners and staff.  


The Marshall Report also states: The first known COVID-19 death of a prisoner was in Georgia when Anthony Cheek died on March 26. Cheek, who was 49 years old, had been held in Lee State Prison near Albany, a hotspot for the disease. Since then, at least 927 other prisoners have died of coronavirus-related causes. By Aug. 25, the total number of deaths had risen by 4 percent in a week.  

That the number deaths has by rising by 4 percent a week and the number of cases has been increasing by 6 percent a week should be a cause of alarm for all. Being imprisoned is the punishment we as a society have chosen for people convicted committing a crime. A prison sentence is not a death sentence but it has become one in many many states and in the BOP.

Finally, Marshall Report comments on how the coronavirus has infected staff at state and federal prisons:

While we know more about how prisoners are getting sick, another group of people is at risk in these facilities: correctional officers, nurses, chaplains, wardens and other workers. We know little about how coronavirus is affecting them, though they have the potential to carry it both into facilities and back out to their communities. It’s difficult to assess how prison workers are being affected because many aren’t being systematically tested.

In the most recent week, 18 states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia—released information on the number of their staff members tested for coronavirus. Where we do know about positive cases, most state corrections departments stress that the count includes only the employees who voluntarily report a diagnosis, often in the course of calling out sick.

While more than 24,055 prison staff members have tested positive, only 72 deaths have been publicly reported.

We don't have complete data from all the states about how many staff have been infected and/or died from the virus. It is very possible that the data we do have is incomplete and doesn't tell the whole picture.  

The bottom line: We the public need to continue to demand the following: early release of older prisoners over 60 and those with underlying serious health conditions, release of prisoners within a year of release, and better and more consistent efforts for both staff and inmates to wear masks and better cleaning and disinfecting the facilities.