Death in prison

prison cell

Mortality behind bars increased 77% during pandemic

Death in prison nationwide increased 77%, or 3.4 times the general population mortality increase, in 2020 when COVID-19 spread across the world, according to new research published in Science Advances.

The paper, titled “Excess mortality in U.S. prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic,” documents, for the first time, the precise and severe impact of COVID-19 on people in prison.

“Compared to existing work focusing on specific states or types of deaths, this research provides a much more comprehensive nationwide understanding of the full extent of deaths in U.S. prisons during the pandemic’s onset,” explains Naomi Sugie, associate professor of criminology, law and society. “It also shows that some Departments of Corrections agencies were quite successful at limiting excess deaths while others experienced very high mortality increases, including deaths for both natural and unnatural causes.”

U.S. prisons were especially susceptible to COVID-19 infection and death; however, data limitations have precluded a national accounting of prison mortality (including but not limited to COVID-19 mortality) during the pandemic, according to the research by Sugie; Kristin Turney, professor of sociology; Keramet Reiter, professor of criminology, law and society; UCI graduate students Rebecca Tublitz, Daniela Kaiser, Rebecca Goodsell and Erin Secrist; and researchers Ankita Patil and Monik Jiménez from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“Our analysis of mortality data collected from public records requests (supplemented with publicly available data) from 48 Departments of Corrections provides the most comprehensive understanding to date of in-custody mortality during 2020,” the researchers note. Among their findings:

  • The number of people who died in U.S. prisons was substantially higher in 2020 (6,088 deaths) than in 2019 (4,206 deaths).
  • Thirteen states experienced a doubling, or more, of mortality among incarcerated people from 2019 to 2020.
  • Mortality in prisons increased across all age groups (49 and under, 50 to 64, and 65 and older). 
  • COVID-19 was the primary driver for increases in mortality due to natural causes; some states also experienced substantial increases due to unnatural causes. 

“These findings provide critical information about the pandemic’s toll on some of the country’s most vulnerable individuals while underscoring the need for data transparency and standardized reporting in carceral settings,” according to the researchers. 

“Collecting the data to document these mortality increases took more than two years and hundreds of public records requests, suggesting just how little is known about what happens behind prison walls,” Reiter says. “Even something as basic as how many people died when, and of what, in prison in 2020 has not been known until now.”

The researchers’ next step, Sugie says, is understanding reasons for the high mortality increases, to take a full accounting and to prepare for future pandemics. 
— Mimi Ko Cruz