CDC report shows scope of COVID-19 outbreak in U.S. jails and prisons

Thousands of people in correctional and detention facilities nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens have died, according to a report released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the report, there have been 4,893 cases and 88 deaths among people who are incarcerated or detained as of April 21. There have been 2,778 cases and 15 deaths reported among staff members. It’s nearly impossible to follow social distancing recommendations in jails and prisons due to crowded dormitories, shared bathrooms and limited chances for isolation, so they have naturally emerged as hotspots in the outbreak. 

The CDC sought data from 54 state and territory health department jurisdictions and heard back from 37 that self-reported their numbers, giving the center a glimpse of the status of the pandemic among these incarcerated populations The data includes numbers from state and local corrections, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Marshals Service, and Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“Prompt identification of COVID-19 cases and consistent application of prevention measures, such as symptom screening and quarantine, are critical to protecting incarcerated and detained persons and staff members,” the report read.

The CDC report looks at laboratory-confirmed cases and doesn’t include the proportion of facility population tested. 

Other groups tracking COVID-19 cases report widely different numbers. The Marshall Project projects a staggering 14,513 cases of the novel coronavirus reported among prisoners — more than three times the CDC number — and 218 deaths. The group requests data every week from state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The New York Times reports even higher numbers: 32,200 infections and 334 deaths among staff and people incarcerated within state prisons, federal prisons, and local jails. Some of the largest clusters of cases come from Marion Correctional Institution and Pickaway Correctional Institution in Ohio and Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennessee.

“The CDC data is likely a massive undercount, because it is both dated and then limited by the fact that so few places are testing adequately,” Nicholas Turner, the president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, wrote in an email. “We see low numbers because no one is checking.”

The authors of the CDC report acknowledge some of its limitations. Since only 69% of jurisdictions reported data, it is unrepresentative of the entire country. In addition, some jurisdictions omitted data from local jails or privately-owned facilities.

The CDC has separate guidelines for preventing the spread in correctional facilities but they echo advice for the general public: regular symptom screenings, isolation, physical distancing, cleaning and disinfection, and cloth face coverings. 

“It is fair to say that there is more of a deeply worrisome prison pandemic afoot than we know,” Turner said. “Prisons are not designed to care for or protect people, so the health care people will receive will not be at all adequate.”

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