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Inmates are 5 times more likely to get coronavirus than the general population, study says

Prison in the time of coronavirus
Prison in the time of coronavirus 07:35

The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging America's jails and prisons, resulting in a higher number of deaths and infection rates than the general population, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University and UCLA's COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. 

The research letter, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that inmates are 3 times more likely to die and 5.5 times more likely to become infected by the virus.

The researchers analyzed cases between March 31 and June 6, and found that 510 inmates had died from the virus and 42,107 had been infected. The data — compiled from state and federal correctional facilities across the country — provides the largest picture yet of pandemic's toll on America's prison system.

Prisons had an infection rate of 3,251 cases for every 100,000 people behind bars, compared to the general population's rate of 587 cases per 100,000. Correctional facilities logged 39 deaths for every 100,000 inmates, compared to 29 deaths per 100,000 in the rest of the country.

The authors warned the study relies on officially reported data, which may include inaccuracies and reporting delays.

"While these numbers are striking, we actually think the disparities within prisons is much greater," said Brendan Saloner, the study's lead author. "Some prisons are not reporting any cases, others are not even testing inmates, so the need for policies to protect incarcerated populations is more important than ever."

In California, 2,286 inmates have been sickened by the virus, and 31 have died as of Friday, according to the state's Department of Corrections and Rehab. Most of the infections have been reported at the San Quentin State Prison, where seven inmates have died.

Activists and health experts have long warned that a pandemic could have catastrophic effects on prisons, where personal protective equipment is limited, social distancing is difficult and medical care can be the substandard. 

"Prisoners have a right to adequate protection of their health while incarcerated," Saloner said. "The reality of these findings shows that we aren't coming anywhere close to meeting their basic needs. Ultimately, it creates a dangerous situation for the inmates, prison staff, the communities that prisons are located in, and in our overall effort to contain the crisis."

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