COVID Infections Soared in Prisons Where Testing was ‘Limited’: Report

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In states where testing for COVID-19 within prisons was “limited,” rates of infection among incarcerated people were nearly eight times the rate for non-incarcerated populations of similar age, gender and race, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

States that did not implement a mass testing strategy for incarcerated populations had “significantly more” COVID-19 deaths among the incarcerated, said the report.

The report, prepared by economist Kevin Schnepel of Simon Fraser University and released Thursday, compared COVID-19 outcomes in 32 states with sufficient data for analysis. Seventeen of those states adopted mass testing –defined as a strategy with the explicit intent to test all incarcerated people – and 15 states did not.

“While it’s unclear precisely why mass testing led to lower death rates, it’s possible that early detection of coronavirus infections led to treatment, isolation, and other preventive measures that improved outcomes,” the report said.

Confirming a conclusive cause-and-effect connection between extensive testing
and reduced mortality is difficult because of data limitations,  Schnepel wrote.

Variations in states’ use of other measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, such as mask requirements, the isolation of symptomatic individuals, suspension of visits and intake, and access to vaccinations, also may have influenced results.

Overall, data through late February showed that one in every three people in prison in these 32 states tested positive for COVID-19, which was 4.3 times the rate outside of prisons.

The study also found a wide variation in testing rates, with some states administering an average of one test per incarcerated person and others testing at a rate of 10 or more tests per individual. Four states –Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, and Vermont – had some of the highest testing rates.

While the details of those states’ approaches varied, all had good COVID-19 outcomes compared to many other state prison systems. Most notably, Vermont has reported no deaths of prisoners due to COVID-19.

“More testing, early testing, and early mass testing, in particular, likely helped many states achieve lower rates of COVID-19 mortality in their prisons,” Schnepel said.

“Despite the gradual spread of vaccinations behind bars, new variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge. States should keep mass testing in their toolkit of containment strategies – today and in the future – to help prevent COVID-19’s spread behind bars,” Schnepel said.

“While we’re seeing progress, there are still states where no vaccines have been administered to people in prison,” said CCJ Senior Fellow Thomas Abt, the Commission’s director.

“Policymakers should remain vigilant, heed this study’s findings, and consider adopting or continuing mass testing of incarcerated populations to save lives.”

The study is the most recent in a series of research reports released by the Commission. Led by former U.S. Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, the independent panel was established by the Council on Criminal Justice last July to examine COVID-19’s impacts on the justice system.

The full report, “Impact Report: COVID-19 Testing in State Prisons,” can be read here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.

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