You Asked: How Bad Is COVID-19 In Prisons?

Jun 3, 2020

Prison facilities across the U.S. have become hotspots for COVID-19 cases. More than 34,000 people in prisons across the U.S. have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to recent data from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit covering criminal justice. Side Effects reporters Jake Harper (WFYI, Indianapolis) and Paige Pfleger (WOSU, Ohio) joined community engagement specialist Brittani Howell to talk about covering prison outbreaks in their states.

The conversation is summarized below and contains edits to reflect up-to-date information.

How has this story unfolded for your states, and what are the most up-to-date numbers?

When Harper began investigating COVID cases in Indiana prisons in early April, Indiana's Joint Information Center confirmed that 10 inmates and 20 Indiana Department of Correction employees had tested positive for the virus. As of June 2, 685 inmates and 311 staff members had tested positive, and at least 16 inmates and two staff members had died.

“It started small and, like everywhere, it grew quickly,” Harper said.

However, because Indiana has tested only about 5% of its 27,000 inmates, the outbreaks may be larger than the numbers reflect.

Ohio has one of the largest prison populations in the country. Ohio has tested more inmates than most states, including Indiana. Mass testing at some facilities in mid-to-late April found that the virus already had a foothold: The Marion Correctional Institution saw 80% of test positive, making it the largest prison outbreak in the nation

As of May 28, 4,400 inmates had tested positive--about 14% of the state’s total cases.

“Just to put that in perspective, the prison population is only .4% of the entire state’s population, so obviously very overrepresentative in the cases,” Pfleger said. 

That holds true for deaths as well. The 71 inmates who had died as of May 28 made up about 3% of all Ohio’s COVID-related deaths.

How forthcoming have states been with information, from numbers to statements to details about facilities?

It’s gotten better, Harper said. Early on, officials were reluctant to disclose information such as where outbreaks were happening, how many cases had been recorded and how many tests were issued. Now it releases the data on a dashboard.

“It’s kind of the same outside of prisons. The transparency kind of came later,” Harper said. 

Ohio has been more transparent, making Department of Corrections staff available for interviews, Pfleger said. But getting in touch with inmates can be trickier. At one point, because of WOSU’s reporting, Pfleger’s phone number was blocked from the system, making it impossible for prisoners to call her. Her email was also blocked. 

“That was quickly resolved, but there were some issues getting in touch with people inside.”

Harper also received word that people were being advised not to speak with him through an all-staff email at the DOC. Harper has been contacting inmates primarily through family members, who can sometimes record phone calls or simply relay their own experiences. 

“I have had some written correspondence with people, although that goes through a sort of filter. Some messages are blocked and never make it, and others do,” Harper said. “It’s kind of hard to tell why some of them make it and some of them don’t.” 

Many families’ and inmates’ accounts contradict official reports on what’s going on within the facilities, such as the conditions inside and the measures being implemented to control the spread of the disease. And some families endure a lack of communication from the prisons as well. In some cases, families didn’t know their loved ones were sick until after they had died—even though a department policy calls for notification when “death may be imminent.”

What solutions are people advocating for to mitigate the spread of the illness in these facilities?

Prisons are difficult places to practice social distancing, and both Harper and Pfleger have reported inmates’ descriptions of tight quarters. Achieving six feet of distance is particularly difficult in Ohio, where the prisons are overcrowded and operate at 130% capacity.

 

The American Civil Liberty Union chapters in both Ohio and Indiana have argued in favor of early release strategies to reduce the number of inmates in the prisons. 

In Ohio, the ACLU estimated that the prison facilities would need to cut their populations in half to meaningfully contain the spread. Hundreds of prisoners, particularly those who are older, pregnant or at risk in some way, have been released early, but it’s still only a small fraction of the state’s 49,000 inmates.

“The ACLU has said that’s not nearly enough to do social distancing behind bars,” Pfleger said.

In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb has chosen to leave the early release decisions up to county-level trial courts on a case-by-case basis. The ACLU of Indiana petitioned the state supreme court to allow the early release of prisoners, particularly the old and sick. But the court denied the petition.

How has testing played out in these facilities for each of your states?

Ohio has tested more inmates than most states, including Indiana. As of May 28, the state had run 9,000 tests, mostly at three facilities with big groups of symptomatic inmates. 

“Nine thousand tests looks like a lot, but it’s only about 19% of the inmate population in the entire state. So there hasn’t been mass testing at the majority of Ohio’s prison facilities and I think that’s really important to keep in mind,” Pfleger said. “It’s just kind of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Ohio’s cases.”

Indiana has not issued nearly as many tests as of early June, in part because testing capacity has been an issue for everyone, Harper said. “But I think it’s clear that they’re not testing everyone who has shown symptoms. And if you look at the numbers, what you’re seeing is half of prisoners are testing positive. Which makes you wonder, how many are they missing?” 

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.
 

Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health. 

Side Effects, Indiana Public Broadcasting and WFYI are asking Americans about health issues as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative. The public media initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. Follow the initiative on Twitter at @amplified2020.