Updated Apr 30, 2024 - COVID

California's prison death rates rose amid COVID

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

Death rates among incarcerated people in California, as well as many other states, increased significantly during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers say.

Why it matters: It's long been clear that prisons struggled to contain COVID outbreaks, but understanding its true impact in prisons is key to ensuring "we don't do this again in the future when we have another pandemic, another crisis," researcher Naomi Sugie told the Marshall Project.

Driving the news: Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, as well as Brigham and Women's Hospital, combined disparate state and federal prison data to create what they consider "the most comprehensive understanding to date of in-custody mortality during 2020."

  • Their work showed that U.S. inmates died nearly 3.5 times more frequently than the free population in 2020.

By the numbers: In California, the death rate was 40.2 for every 10,000 inmates in 2020 — up 27% from 2019, according to the Marshall Project's analysis of a study published in Science Advances.

Zoom in: San Diego's state prison, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, reported 1,915 cases and 21 inmate deaths since 2020.

What they're saying: The health and safety of "all those who live and work in our state prisons" is "the top priority," CDCR spokesperson Alia Cruz told Axios via email. "We have and continue to work diligently to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic with transparency."

Flashback: San Diego County inmates told the San Diego Union-Tribune they were denied protective gear and cleaning supplies in 2020.


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