COVID-19 Mortality Rates On the Rise

Since COVID-19 first appeared in the US, prisons across the country have felt the brunt of its effects. By August 2020, 19 of the 20 top clusters of active cases in the US were found in incarceration facilities. With more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, it is imperative that the effects of this virus on the prison population is understood. This article by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ) discusses the mortality rates of this deadly virus by addressing two key questions:

  1. How do COVID-19 cases and mortality rates in state and federal prisons differ from the general population?

  2. How do COVID-19 cases differ in various correctional facilities?



 Inmates are often at the forefront of pandemics. Many inmates suffer from chronic health issues, such as heart disease or diabetes. Issues like these make inmates especially susceptible to COVID-19 complications. Often, inmates cannot access adequate healthcare, which makes it exceptionally difficult for them to receive proper treatment. Age also plays a factor, as elderly inmates may suffer from additional health-related complications. 

However, the biggest reason COVID-19 thrives in carceral settings is simply because of overcrowding. Most federal prisons are over capacity, which makes it impossible for inmates to socially distance effectively. Prisons and jails are also revolving doors – that is to say that they often have an influx of staff, new inmates and other visitors moving throughout the prison. This makes it exceptionally easy for viruses to spread throughout a facility.


By mid-August, 2020, nearly 115,000 inmates and staff at various correctional facilities reported active COVID-19 cases. Of that number, over 900 of those cases ended in a fatality. This number is nearly four times higher than the mortality rates found outside prison walls. However, the NCCCJ found that this number does not factor in the demographic disparities between the incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations. Even with skewed data, this still reveals a troubling pattern in our justice system. Non-incarcerated individuals of the same sex, age, and ethnicity are less likely to die from the virus.


COVID-19 in the U.S. State and Federal Prisons report included five key points that best summarize its findings.

  1. The COVID-19 mortality rate of those incarcerated is nearly twice as large as the general public. This is even after adjusting for race, age and sex disparities.

  2. Out of 100,000 inmates, 7,000 of them have contracted COVID-19. This makes inmates four times more likely to test positive for COVID-19.

  3. However, not all prisons are suffering from enormous mortality rates. Some prisons have reported no deaths at all, while others have seen cases and fatality rates spike. More research must be done to understand why some prisons are managing and others are not.

  4. Most of the prisons with the highest number of active COVID-19 cases fall under one or more of three categories. The prison is state owned, the prison is in the southern region of the U.S., and/or the prison has a massive population (of 1,000 or more). Midwestern ones with large populations are the ones dealing with the highest mortality rates.

  5. Although the study managed to document the impact of COVID-19 on a facility-based level, it was unable to determine how surrounding communities were affected.


This study revealed new insight on the behavior of novel coronavirus 2019 disease in carceral settings. More importantly, it demonstrated that there is a clear, and desperate need for improved inmate healthcare. Inmates are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. As a result, it makes them infinitely more vulnerable to complications from the virus. With mortality rates still rising, something must be done before it is too late.

For more insight on the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the criminal justice system, click here

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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