Inmates exercise in the yard at the Marion Correctional Institution – Reuters
A massive wave of coronavirus infections is blasting through the world’s largest prison population in the United States even as officials begin opening up their economies, saying the disease has plateaued.
One prison in Marion, Ohio has become the most intensely infected institution across the country, with more than 80 percent of its nearly 2,500 inmates, and 175 staff on top of that, testing positive for Covid-19.
Coronavirus deaths are on the increase in jails and penitentiaries across the country, with officials having few options – they are unable to force adequate distancing in crowded cells and facing shortages of medical personnel and personal protective gear everywhere.
The threat to the 2.3 million-strong US prison population was seen last week in the death of Andrea Circle Bear, a 30-year-old native American woman from South Dakota.
Pregnant when she was placed in a Texas federal prison in March on drug charges, she soon became sick with the disease and was placed on a ventilator, and gave birth by C-section. She remained on the ventilator and died weeks later.
Because of the hodge-podge of prison management – federal, state, and local authorities have their own, and many are run by for-profit private companies – testing and reporting has been haphazard.
Covid Prison Data, a group of university criminal justice and data experts, says that based on public reports, 13,436 inmates and 5,312 corrections staff nationwide have tested positive for coronavirus.
But many states, and the federal penitentiary system, have done only a small amount of testing. Five of the 50 states don’t even report data.
Prisons occupied eight spaces on The New York Times’ compilation of the top 10 infected institutions, with the Marion Correctional Institution at the top.
The reasons are clear: prison populations are more dense and harder to separate than nursing homes and cruise ships, two institutions hit hardest by the disease.
Thay also operate at lower levels of hygiene, and a large number of inmates have preexisting conditions.
And, until now, they have been low priority for officials battling the pandemic.