A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Virus death rate five times higher in prison than state as a whole; higher when adjusted for age, sex, race


By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky prisons have the third highest covid-19 death rate compared to death rates for the disease among the state’s whole population, even after rates are adjusted for the sex, age, race and ethnicity of inmates, says a study from the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice.

As of mid-August, the report found Kentucky’s prisons’ covid-19 death rate was five times the state’s overall, unadjusted death rate from the disease: 89.5 deaths per 100,000 prisoners, compared to 18.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.

After adjusting for inmates’ demographic characteristics, the prisons’ covid-19 death rate was 13.8 times higher than the overall death rate for the disease in Kentucky.

Covid-19 mortality rates in state and federal prisons as of Aug. 15, compared with overall mortality rates, adjusted to match inmates’ sex, age race and ethnicity. Graph is from the NCCCJ report. (Click for larger image)

Arkansas had the highest covid-19 death rates in prisons, both adjusted and unadjusted. New Mexico ranked second in the adjusted rate and Ohio ranked second in the unadjusted rate.

In coronavirus cases, Kentucky’s prisons ranked eighth in the nation, with a case rate 7.9% higher than the state s a whole. The researchers were not able to make demographic adjustments in case figures due to a lack of available data. Kentucky reports demographics of cases, but many states do not.

State Corrections Commissioner Cookie Crews said in an email delivered by the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, “The Department of Corrections has taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff and inmates incarcerated in Kentucky state prisons. All efforts made by DOC to date have been implemented in close collaboration with the Department for Public Health in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for correctional settings.”

As of Sept. 8, the corrections department reported 888 inmates and 151 staff had tested positive for the coronavirus. Of those, 786 inmates and 144 staff had recovered. The online report says there has been one staff death and 13 inmate deaths from the virus. The report shows 11 prison deaths and 851 prison cases in Kentucky as of Aug. 19.

The study calls state and federal prisons “covid-19 hotspots,” with new cases of the virus increasing rapidly in July and August.

“Incarceration facilities represented 19 of the top 20 clusters of confirmed cases in the U.S. as of August 19,” says the report. “These trends are especially concerning considering that the U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world, with approximately 2 million people behind bars. More than 1.3 million individuals are in state or federal prisons and the remainder are in county jails.”

The report points to the many challenges of containing an outbreak in prisons, including those around social distancing in small shared spaces, issues of over-crowding, high rates of chronic health conditions that make people more vulnerable to the disease, limited medical resources, an aging prison population, and the daily churn of staff members, new arrivals and in some states, visitors.

The researchers also recognize the health disparities that exist among Blacks, who are twice as likely to die from covid-19 than whites, and are incarcerated five times more often than whites. Prisoners are also much more likely to be younger and male, says the report.

The research illustrates variations in both states and types of facilities, which the researchers say could inform future research about what policies have been most effective in thwarting the spread of the virus in these facilities.

Visit cdn.ymaws.com for a separate report on covid-19, jails and public safety.


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