Report: US Prison Deaths Up 50% During 1st Year of COVID

Report: US Prison Deaths Up 50% During 1st Year of COVID
Last updated Feb 20, 2023
Image credit: The New York Times


  • On Sunday, the New York Times (NYT) — citing data collected by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) — reported that state and federal prison deaths in the US nearly doubled during the first year of the COVID pandemic, with six states seeing prison deaths rise more than 50%.
  • While the pandemic was cited as a key contributor to the elevated death tolls, inmates also succumbed to other illnesses, suicide, and violence. UCLA data shows that 6,182 people died in American prisons in 2020, up from 4,240 in 2019, despite the prison population declining to around 1.3M from over 1.4M.
  • According to the NYT's report, ample evidence showed that prisons were COVID hotspots, amplified by an aging inmate population, understaffed correctional facilities, and ill-equipped medical personnel.
  • Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and West Virginia were among the states with the highest prison mortality rates in 2020, with West Virginia having a record 96 deaths per 10k prisoners during the first year of COVID.
  • Some states with typically low death rates reportedly saw significant spikes in 2020, with Michigan and Nevada seeing roughly 70 deaths per 10k inmates — more than double from the previous year. However, a few states, including Vermont and Wyoming, saw a drop in prison death rates.
  • UCLA School of Law’s Behind Bars Data Project has been tracking prison deaths since the federal government stopped reporting deaths in custody in 2019.


Progressive narrative

The mounting deaths in American prisons during the COVID pandemic underscores just how overpopulated US prisons are and why America must decarcerate. System failure turned prison sentences into death sentences, and it's time that the US release non-violent offenders from jail and seek alternative methods of rehabilitation.

Conservative narrative

While it's tragic to see the effects of COVID as it spread through American prisons, prisoners cannot simply be released en masse because of a pandemic, which uprooted the lives of nearly every person in the world. Mass decarceration — which will only lead to social deterioration — isn't the answer.

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