Prison Deaths Spiked by Almost 50 Percent During Early Months of COVID-19 Pandemic
New data highlights just how deadly U.S. prisons became during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the U.S., prison deaths spiked by almost 50 percent in 2020, jumping to 6,182 deaths from 4,240 the year before.
“The U.S. has seen a significant, continual increase in deaths in prisons over the past two decades, but never before have the country’s prisons seen such a steep increase year-to-year,” according to the University of California, Los Angeles Law Behind Bars Data Project.
The project obtained information on 2019 and 2020 prison deaths from 49 states and the federal government. (New Mexico’s Bureau of Prisons did not provide data.) It collected 2021 death data from 28 states.
Forty-three states saw an increase in prison deaths in 2020. And in six states—Alaska, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Rhode Island—the number of prison deaths more than doubled.
In Michigan prisons, there were 131 more deaths in custody in 2020 than in 2019, despite the state’s overall prison population declining by 8 percent. Texas had 253 more prison deaths in 2020 than in 2019, and Florida 190 more prison deaths.
“American prisons are deadly but obscure places,” said Aaron Littman, a UCLA Law professor and acting director of the Behind Bars Data Project. “Our carceral mortality database provides a tragic accounting of the many lives lost in prison in recent years.”
High rates of death in prison also continued into 2021, the project’s data suggests.
The Behind Bars Data Project is an attempt to fill in information that is now lacking from government data:
We release this database as the federal government has failed to reliably and transparently collect data on deaths in custody and effectively ceased its own reporting of these data, abdicating a Congressionally-mandated responsibility of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) since 2000.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UCLA Law Behind Bars Data Project has collected data from carceral agencies to document the impact of COVID on incarcerated people. However, COVID case rates and related deaths reported by carceral agencies do not reveal the full impact of the pandemic on incarcerated people. Due to inadequate and opaque testing regimens, a large and uncertain number of infections went unidentified, and at least some deaths were not properly attributed to COVID 1 2 3 4. Moreover, as the project has documented, many state prison systems have become less transparent over the course of the pandemic. Twenty-one state prison agencies no longer post data on the state of COVID in their facilities at all. These agencies were responsible for the health and welfare of over 380,000 incarcerated individuals in 2020. Finally, COVID data do not reflect deaths that were immediately caused by something other than a COVID infection but occurred in prisons where medical and security staff were overwhelmed or depleted by the pandemic.
Th 2020 spike in prison deaths came “even as the country’s prison population declined to about 1.3 million from more than 1.4 million,” noted the The New York Times. It “was more than twice the increase in the United States overall, and even exceeded estimates of the percentage increase at nursing homes, among the hardest-hit sectors nationwide.”
In 2001, there were just 3,170 deaths in a U.S. prison population of more than 1.4 million.
You can find all of the Behind Bars Data Project’s prison death data on GitHub.
ACLU urges Congress not to ban TikTok. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is pushing back against a Congressional proposal to ban the popular video app TikTok. “This vague and overbroad legislation would violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use TikTok to communicate, gather information, and express themselves daily,” wrote the ACLU in a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The group urged members to vote no on HR 1153, the legislation meant to ban TikTok that could also have much more broad-reaching consequences. “In a purported attempt to protect the data of U.S. persons from Chinese government acquisition, this legislation will instead limit Americans’ political discussion, artistic expression, free exchange of ideas — and even prevent people from posting cute animal videos and memes,” said the ACLU letter:
While the ACLU’s opposition today rests on free speech harms, we note that with more time to review this legislation, we anticipate finding other sweeping implications.
[…] Provisions of this bill are vague and overbroad. For example, Section 201 tasks the President with determining if a foreign entity deals in software that is “subject to the jurisdiction” of China “or othe
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