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US prison deaths soared by 77% during height of Covid-19 crisis, study finds | US prisons

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A study of US prison deaths at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 has found that mortality rates soared by 77% relative to 2019, or more than three times the increase in the general population.

The study, published by Science Advances last week, is the most comprehensive analysis of in-custody deaths since 2020. The report found that “Covid-19 was the primary driver for increases in mortality due to natural causes; some states also experienced substantial increases due to unnatural causes.”

The report was compiled using data from record requests and some publicly available data, when necessary, from 49 state and federal departments of corrections.

Lead author Naomi Sugie, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine, told Courthouse News that the actual toll of Covid-19 in the prison system had been little understood.

“We staffed a hotline and started this archival project hearing what people were going through in California prisons,” Sugie told the outlet. “And the conditions that people were describing were so dire and upsetting and really just violations of their health and, some may argue, human rights.”

Sugie began studying the effect of Covid-19 in California prisons after they imposed containment lockdowns in 2020. The PrisonPandemic project found that the institutions reduced facility communication and transparency down to zero with some facilities not recording causes of death that year at all.

The authors write that there has been no publicly available information about mortality in US prisons since 2019 despite the Death in Custody Reporting Act passed in 2000 and reauthorized in 2014 that requires the collection of information regarding the death of any person who is under arrest, en route to be incarcerated, incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, state prison, or other local or state correctional facility.

The 2022 Bureau of Justice statistics, found that roughly 2,500 prisoners died of Covid-related causes between March 2020 and February 2021, but the number didn’t include a rise in mortality rates of natural deaths or unnatural deaths.

“These steep increases suggest systemic failures that simultaneously increased risk of illness and limited access to medical care,” the authors of the study wrote.

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The study also found that pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions on movement, including isolation, visitor prohibitions, and solitary confinement in place of medical isolation, designed to mitigate infection had “increased stress, mental health challenges, and violence exacerbating the risk of deaths due to unnatural causes, such as drug overdoses, suicide, and violence”.

Sugie told the outlet that “for all of those deaths that are related to the pandemic, for various ways, we don’t know about them because they’re not officially coded as Covid-related”. Just like in the general population, she added, a lot of states did not test systemically, “so even if someone died of Covid, their death may not have been recorded as Covid-related”.


A study of US prison deaths at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 has found that mortality rates soared by 77% relative to 2019, or more than three times the increase in the general population.

The study, published by Science Advances last week, is the most comprehensive analysis of in-custody deaths since 2020. The report found that “Covid-19 was the primary driver for increases in mortality due to natural causes; some states also experienced substantial increases due to unnatural causes.”

The report was compiled using data from record requests and some publicly available data, when necessary, from 49 state and federal departments of corrections.

Lead author Naomi Sugie, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine, told Courthouse News that the actual toll of Covid-19 in the prison system had been little understood.

“We staffed a hotline and started this archival project hearing what people were going through in California prisons,” Sugie told the outlet. “And the conditions that people were describing were so dire and upsetting and really just violations of their health and, some may argue, human rights.”

Sugie began studying the effect of Covid-19 in California prisons after they imposed containment lockdowns in 2020. The PrisonPandemic project found that the institutions reduced facility communication and transparency down to zero with some facilities not recording causes of death that year at all.

The authors write that there has been no publicly available information about mortality in US prisons since 2019 despite the Death in Custody Reporting Act passed in 2000 and reauthorized in 2014 that requires the collection of information regarding the death of any person who is under arrest, en route to be incarcerated, incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, state prison, or other local or state correctional facility.

The 2022 Bureau of Justice statistics, found that roughly 2,500 prisoners died of Covid-related causes between March 2020 and February 2021, but the number didn’t include a rise in mortality rates of natural deaths or unnatural deaths.

“These steep increases suggest systemic failures that simultaneously increased risk of illness and limited access to medical care,” the authors of the study wrote.

skip past newsletter promotion

The study also found that pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions on movement, including isolation, visitor prohibitions, and solitary confinement in place of medical isolation, designed to mitigate infection had “increased stress, mental health challenges, and violence exacerbating the risk of deaths due to unnatural causes, such as drug overdoses, suicide, and violence”.

Sugie told the outlet that “for all of those deaths that are related to the pandemic, for various ways, we don’t know about them because they’re not officially coded as Covid-related”. Just like in the general population, she added, a lot of states did not test systemically, “so even if someone died of Covid, their death may not have been recorded as Covid-related”.

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