Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are only a few days left in our critical Mid-Year Campaign and we truly might not make it without your help.
Please join us. If you rely on independent media, support Common Dreams today. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Faith leaders and activists hold signs during a public memorial in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse to honor victims of Covid-19 that have died while incarcerated on May 12, 2020 in San Francisco.

Faith leaders and activists hold signs during a public memorial in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse to honor victims of Covid-19 that have died while incarcerated on May 12, 2020 in San Francisco. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

'This Is Mass Murder': Covid-19 Deaths in US Prisons Have Risen by 73% the Past Month

The number of known cases in the facilities has doubled since mid-May to over 68,000.

Jessica Corbett

After months of warnings that the coronavirus pandemic has turned U.S. detention facilities into "ticking time bombs" and a "nightmare waiting to happen," the New York Times reported Tuesday that deaths related to Covid-19 in prisons across the country have soared by 73% since mid-May.

"The number of prison inmates known to be infected has doubled during the past month to more than 68,000" while the national daily infection rate "has remained relatively flat," according to data the Times has collected since the virus reached the U.S. "By now, the five largest known clusters of the virus in the United States are not at nursing homes or meatpacking plants, but inside correction institutions."

Fred Roehler, a 77-year-old inmate at a California prison with chronic inflammatory lung disease and other respiratory issues, told the newspaper that Covid-19 is "like a sword hanging over my head... Any officer can bring it in."

The Times reported that "a muddled, uneven response by corrections officials to testing and care for inmates and workers is complicating the spread of the coronavirus," and the risk of the situation getting worse "appears imminent," given that law enforcement has responded to a nationwide uprising against police brutality and systemic racism by locking up protesters in cramped holding pens at local jails.

Dr. Homer Venters of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, a group that works to improve healthcare in jails, told the Times that "we have really no true idea of how bad the problem is because most places are not yet testing the way they should."

While Texas has started testing every inmate for Covid-19, fewer than 2.5% of inmates have been tested in the Alabama, Illinois, and Mississippi prison systems. New York has tested only about 3% of the state's inmates, and over 40% have come back positive.

"I think a lot of times some of the operational challenges of either not having adequate quarantine policies or adequate medical isolation policies are so vexing that places simply decide that they can just throw up their hands," said Venters, a former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system.

Although some state prison systems have been more proactive about testing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends only testing inmates with symptoms of Covid-19. The Times database shows "prisons that have conducted mass testing have found that about one in seven tests of inmates have come back positive," and the "vast majority" of inmates with positive tests have been asymptomatic.

Testing is only one part of what is needed in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers to tackle the virus—effective containment policies are also essential. In April, experts at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School warned that "those in our correctional facilities suffer cramped and unsanitary conditions, increasing the spread of contagious diseases behind bars," and urged U.S. governors to:

  • Make full use of your clemency authority to commute the sentences of vulnerable people to time served, allowing their immediate release, or fashion other appropriate relief;
  • Expand your states' "good time credit" or equivalent programs to reduce overall incarceration;
  • Work with state prosecutors to keep people who have been convicted of crimes, but not yet sentenced, out of prison for the duration of this health crisis; and
  • Take steps to limit the damaging impact of criminal justice debt, including but not limited to court fees and fines.

One strategy that some correctional officials have been using to respond to the virus has advocates alarmed: solitary confinement. Unlock the Box, a national campaign to end the practice, released a report on Monday showing an estimated 500% increase in the use of solitary confinement as a result of the pandemic, based on research and analysis by the national watchdog group Solitary Watch.

"There is a human tragedy unfolding all around us in our nation's jails and prisons, and that is the callous use of torture as a first, second, and final response to Covid-19," Jessica Sandoval of Unlock the Box said in a statement. "As this special report demonstrates, solitary confinement creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that prevents sick people from reporting their symptoms, and puts incarcerated people, correctional officers, and local communities at greater risk from Covid-19."

"Rather than developing a comprehensive plan that would take at-risk people out of correctional facilities," Sandoval added, "officials at the federal, state, and local level are reversing years of hard fought human rights gains by dramatically increasing this uniquely American form of cruel and unusual punishment."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Supreme Court Says Biden Can End 'Shameful' Remain in Mexico Asylum Policy

"Now is the turn for Congress to get rid of Title 42, and provide a solution to the weakened asylum system in place, to provide a humane and fair alternative to vulnerable children, families, and individuals fleeing unsafe conditions and persecution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Democrats Lose Senate Majority as 82-Year-Old Leahy Heads for Hip Surgery

"It could be over for the Senate Dems now," said one policy expert in response. "This could mean they effectively lost their majority."

Jon Queally ·


Beijing Slams NATO for 'Maliciously... Smearing' China as a Security Threat

"Who's challenging global security and undermining world peace?" Chinese officials asked. "Are there any wars or conflicts over the years where NATO is not involved?"

Kenny Stancil ·


US Supreme Court Drops Carbon Bomb on the Planet

One Democratic senator warned the high court's right-wing majority "could unleash a new era of reckless deregulation that will gut protections for all Americans and the environment."

Jake Johnson ·


'Massive Betrayal': Biden Cuts Deal With McConnell to Nominate Anti-Abortion Judge

"At a time when we are fighting to protect human rights, this is a complete slap in the face."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo