Apr 26, 2024 - News

Oregon prison deaths rose during COVID-19

Data: The Marshall Project via U.C. Irvine and Brigham and Women's Hospital; Note: Rates calculated using prison populations at the start of each year; Chart: Axios Visuals

Prisoner deaths in Oregon jumped 16% during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers found. But the state saw a significantly lower increase than others.

Why it matters: Although it's long been clear that prisons struggled to contain COVID outbreaks, there's still no official pandemic prison death toll.

Driving the news: Mortality in U.S. prisons increased 77% in 2020 compared to 2019 — 3.4 times the rise among the free population, according to a Marshall Project analysis of a study published in Science Advances.

  • Some states saw triple-digit percentage rises in mortality rates between 2019 and 2020, such as Montana (216%) and New Mexico (160%).

Zoom in: Of Oregon's 12,000 inmates in 14 prisons, 3,000 had tested positive for the coronavirus and 41 had died of it by January 2021, when a federal judge ruled the Oregon Department of Corrections should offer vaccines to all inmates.

  • Oregon's 2020 death rate for those incarcerated was 34.4 for every 10,000 people, up from 29.7 per 10,000 in 2019, a 16% rise, according to the Marshall Project analysis.
  • The Covid Prison Project, which stopped counting incarcerated deaths in mid-2023, found 52 incarcerated deaths and three staff deaths in Oregon.

Flashback: The entire state had the fourth lowest rate of COVID infection after one year of the pandemic, which was attributed to mask-wearing, social distancing and strict rules limiting gatherings.

The bottom line: Understanding COVID's true impact in prisons is key to learning "from what happened, so we don't do this again in the future when we have another pandemic, another crisis," study lead author Naomi Sugie told the Marshall Project.

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