Apr 24, 2024 - Health

California's prison death rates rose amid COVID

Data: The Marshall Project via UC Irvine and Brigham and Women's Hospital; Note: Rates calculated using prison populations at the start of each year; Chart: Axios Visuals
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Death rates among incarcerated people in California, as well as in many other states, significantly increased during the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers say.

Why it matters: It's long been clear that prisons struggled to contain COVID outbreaks, but understanding COVID's 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, and 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."

  • They found that incarcerated people in the U.S. died nearly 3.5 times more frequently than the free population in 2020.

Zoom in: In California, the 2020 death rate for those incarcerated was 40.2 for every 10,000 people — a 27% rise in death rate compared to 2019, according to the Marshall Project analysis of a study published in Science Advances.

  • In total, there have been 263 confirmed COVID-related deaths among incarcerated people in California since 2020, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Flashback: Bay Area correctional facility San Quentin State Prison was fined more than $400,000 and faced general scrutiny over its safety practices related to COVID-19.

  • The prison had a large COVID outbreak in the summer of 2020, resulting in the deaths of 26 incarcerated people and one guard, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
  • Last October, a federal appeals court ruled that California can be held responsible for the incarcerated people's deaths, per the Chronicle.

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

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