One in five state and federal inmates has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population, reports the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected. As the pandemic enters its 10th month, at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, 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. “That number is a vast undercount,” said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. Venters has conducted more than a dozen court-ordered COVID-19 prison inspections. “I still encounter prisons and jails where, when people get sick, not only are they not tested but they don’t receive care. So they get much sicker than need be,” he said.
The rollout of vaccines poses difficult decisions for policymakers. As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners can’t social distance and are dependent on the state for their well-being. Prison workers have been disproportionately infected. In North Dakota, four of every five prison staff has gotten coronavirus. Nationwide, it’s one in five. As vaccine campaigns get underway, there has been pushback against giving the shots to people in prisons. “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners … before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. Prison facilities are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Dormitory-style housing, cafeterias and open-bar cell doors make quarantining nearly impossible. California has released 11,000 inmates since March. State prisons sometimes stopped accepting prisoners from county jails during the pandemic. More than 8,000 people are waiting in jails, which are also coronavirus hot spots.