Piling up: prisons deaths from COVID-19 on the climb

Death count from covid within prisons may be higher —people who died after hospitalization were excluded in official totals as they were considered “released from custody," your Friday long read.

We go to The New York Times for this week’s long read by Maura Turcotte, Rachel Sherman, Rebecca Griesbach and Ann Hinga Klein. Read the whole story, “The Real Toll From Prison Covid Cases May Be Higher Than Reported.”

A complicated—and incomplete—picture of the virus’ toll behind bars

“None of these deaths have been included in official Covid-19 mortality tolls of the jails where the men had been detained. And these cases are not unique. The New York Times identified dozens of people around the country who died under similar circumstances but were not included in official counts.

In some cases, in places including Texas, Ohio and California, deaths were added to facilities’ virus tolls after The Times brought missing names to the attention of officials. In other cases, people who were infected with the coronavirus while incarcerated — but granted legal releases because of the severity of their illnesses — were not included in the death tallies of the jails where they got sick. Still other inmates’ deaths were left off facilities’ virus tolls for reasons that are unexplained.”

“Public health officials say the prospect of overlooked virus deaths tied to the nation’s prisons, jails and immigration detention centers carries particular risks. It is challenging, the experts say, to prepare prisons for future epidemics without knowing the full toll. For now, the publicly known death totals connected to incarceration largely come from the facilities themselves.”


“On May 1, 2020, Mr. [Juan] Cruz, who had pleaded not guilty on a sexual assault charge, tested positive for the virus while he was in the Rikers Island jail complex, court records show. Within days, he was transferred to the jail ward of Bellevue Hospital and shackled to his bed frame. On May 12, he was placed on a ventilator, court records show.

Mr. Cruz’s lawyers eventually convinced officials to release Mr. Cruz because of the severity of his illness. His handcuffs were removed, and he was taken to a different wing of the hospital. He died there of Covid-19 three weeks later.

Jail authorities in New York City say they have not counted the death of Mr. Cruz among its Covid-19 fatalities because Mr. Cruz was not in custody when he died.

After The Times raised Mr. Cruz’s circumstances with New York officials, along with several other deaths not included in jail counts, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the administration would be more straightforward about disclosing Covid-19 deaths like Mr. Cruz’s in the future.”

Bottom Line 

“You can’t make good public policy if you don’t know what’s actually going on on the ground,” said Sharon Dolovich, director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, which tracks coronavirus deaths in American prisons.”

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that any fatality in which Covid-19 is listed as “a contributing cause” on the death certificate be deemed a coronavirus death even if other causes also are noted, but state and local officials have sometimes taken varying approaches. Further complicating matters, there can be discrepancies between what medical examiners deem the cause of a death and what is listed on death certificates, which are not publicly available in most cases.”

Read the whole article.

COVID-19 resources: State policy changesNewsBureau of Prisons updatesState court changesPrison holistic self care and protection.

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