One in every five state and federal prisoners across the U.S. has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The rate is more than four times higher than that of the general population, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.
More than 276,000 inmates have been infected and more than 1,700 have died, and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing.
New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August, with more than 25,000 recorded infections.
Now, the rollout of vaccines poses difficult decisions for politicians and policymakers. As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners can’t socially distance and are dependent on the state for their safety and well-being.
It comes as photos emerged online of California prison staff partying without masks or social distancing.
More than 276,000 prisoners at the state and federal level has contracted coronavirus, meaning the infection rate is one in five
At least 1,736 have died of COVID-19, indicating the mortality rate is 45% higher than the national rate
South Dakota has the highest rate of infected prisoners at 6,228 per 10,000, followed by Arkansas and Kansas. Pictured: An inmate is led out of his east block cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California
Infection rates, as of Tuesday, were calculated by the AP and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system.
The calculations were based on data collected weekly in prisons since March.
Infection and mortality rates may be even higher because nearly every prison system today has significantly fewer prisoners than when the pandemic began, so rates represent a conservative estimate based on the largest known population.
Nearly every prison system in the country has seen infection rates significantly higher than the communities around them.
In facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, one of every five prisoners has had coronavirus. Twenty-four state prison systems have had even higher rates.
Donte Westmoreland, 26, was recently released from Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas, where he caught the virus while serving time on a marijuana charge.
Some 5,100 prisoners have become infected in Kansas prisons, the third-highest COVID-19 rate in the country, behind only South Dakota and Arkansas.
In Arkansas, where more than 9,700 prisoners have tested positive and 50 have died, four of every seven have had the virus.
‘It was like I was sentenced to death,’ Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland lived with more than 100 virus-infected men in an open dorm, where he woke up regularly to find men sick on the floor, unable to get up on their own, he said.
‘People are actually dying in front of me off of this virus. It’s the scariest sight, he said.
Westmoreland said he sweated it out, shivering in his bunk until, six weeks later, he finally recovered.
Half of the prisoners in Kansas have been infected with COVID-19 – eight times the rate of cases among the state’s overall population.
Nationwide, one in five prison staff members have tested positive with a morality rate of 0.1%
Donte Westmoreland, 26 (pictured), was infected with COVID-19 while serving time at Lansing Correctional Facility. He recovered six weeks later. Pictured: Westmoreland after his release, December 15
Eleven prisoners have died, including five at the prison where Westmoreland was held. Of the three prison employees who have died in Kansas, two worked at Lansing Correctional Facility.
Prison workers have also been disproportionately affected. In North Dakota, four of every five prison staff has gotten coronavirus. Nationwide, it’s one in five.
Facilities are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Dormitory-style housing, cafeterias and open-bar cell doors make it nearly impossible to quarantine.
Additionally, prison populations are sicker, on average, than the general population and health care behind bars is notoriously substandard.
Nationwide, the mortality rate for COVID-19 among prisoners is 45 percent higher than the overall rate.
‘If we are going to end this pandemic – bring down infection rates, bring down death rates, bring down ICU occupancy rates – we have to address infection rates in correctional facilities,’ Dr Emily Wang, a professor at Yale School of Medicine and co-author of the recent National Academies report, told the AP.
‘Infections and deaths are extraordinarily high. These are wards of the state, and we have to contend with it.’
Photos emerged on Facebook of a December 6 on Santa Clara County prison staff partying without masks or social distancing (left and right). The county is seeing a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the general population and also among sheriff’s office staff and jail inmates
It comes as the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office said it is looking into photos showing prison staff partying.
Photos posted on Facebook show at least three of correctional deputies at an indoor party last weekend with little to no mask wearing or social distancing and where partygoers shared a beer bong.
The photos surfaced as the county is seeing a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the general population and also among sheriff’s office staff and jail inmates.
The Mercury News reported on Thursday that more than 30 photographs and videos were posted from the December 6 party on a jail deputy’s profile that was registered under an alias.
December 6 was the same day Santa Clara County went into a lockdown, which prohibited people from gathering with others outside of their own household.
The photos suggest that well over three households – the pre-lockdown gathering limit – were at the party.
The sheriff’s office said it was not aware of the party and would review the event.
‘As a law enforcement agency, we expect our staff to hold themselves and each other to a higher standard and take the recommendations and guidelines set forth by public health officials seriously,’ the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
‘The behavior depicted in the Facebook post in question are not representative of these expectations or the agency as a whole.
‘If in fact they are sheriff’s deputies, they are expected to adhere to public health guidance as well as conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times, whether on or off-duty. The matter is being looked into.’
Correctional deputies account for close to two-thirds of the 117 recorded COVID-19 cases since March involving sheriff’s office staff, as reported on its public online dashboard.
As of Wednesday, 19 correctional deputies were listed with active infections, alongside 11 patrol deputies and five civilian employees.