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As the Pandemic Swept America, Deaths in Prisons Rose Nearly 50 Percent

The first comprehensive data on prison fatalities in the Covid era sheds new light on where and why prisoners were especially vulnerable.

Deaths in state and federal prisons across America rose nearly 50 percent during the first year of the pandemic, and in six states they more than doubled, according to the first comprehensive data on prison fatalities in the era of Covid-19.

The tremendous jump in deaths in 2020 was more than twice the increase in the United States overall, and even exceeded estimates of the percentage increase at nursing homes, among the hardest-hit sectors nationwide. In many states, the data showed, high rates continued in 2021.

While there was ample evidence that prisons were Covid hot spots, an examination of the data by The New York Times underscored how quickly the virus rampaged through crowded facilities, and how an aging inmate population, a correctional staffing shortage and ill-equipped medical personnel combined to make prisoners especially vulnerable during the worst public health crisis in a century.

“There are so many who passed away due to not getting the medical care they needed,” said Teresa Bebeau, whose imprisoned friend died from complications of Covid and cancer in South Carolina. “Most of these people, they didn’t go in there with death sentences, but they’re dying.”

Covid infections drove the death totals, but inmates also succumbed to other illnesses, suicide and violence, according to the data, which was collected by law school researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and provides a more detailed, accurate look at deaths in prison systems during the pandemic than earlier efforts. Altogether, at least 6,182 people died in American prisons in 2020, compared with 4,240 the previous year, even as the country’s prison population declined to about 1.3 million from more than 1.4 million.

Several of the states with the highest mortality rates in 2020 had a history of elevated prison deaths, including Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia. Researchers said the high numbers — 96 deaths per 10,000 prisoners in West Virginia, more than in any other state — stemmed from long sentences, harsh conditions and relatively poor public health overall.

“Clearly the pandemic is the story, but it is just a part of the story,” said Aaron Littman, an assistant professor and the acting director of the U.C.L.A. Law Behind Bars Data Project.

Chrysti Shain, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Corrections Department, said a lack of testing early in the pandemic had contributed to increased infections. “South Carolina has made significant changes in both its medical and mental health care systems over the past decade” to improve care in prisons, she said. Prison officials in the three other states did not respond to requests for comment.

Even some states with typically lower death rates saw a surge. Michigan and Nevada both had about 70 fatalities per 10,000 inmates in 2020, up from about 30 the previous year.

In New York, an early epicenter of the pandemic, the rate rose to 32 deaths per 10,000 inmates in 2020, from 25 the year before, while New Jersey recorded 51 deaths per 10,000, up from 21. Texas, which has the largest prison population in the country, had 48 deaths per 10,000, up from 28, and California, with the second-highest number of inmates, had 43 per 10,000 in 2020, up from 32.

A handful of states, including Vermont and Wyoming, saw death rates fall, their small prison populations largely spared when the first waves of the virus struck.

“If you have a lower population, then it’s less likely that people are going to be hurt or suffer from major life-threatening issues,” said Nicholas Deml, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections.

Deaths in the federal prison system rose, but the rate was lower than those in most states.

For years, the Justice Department collected and analyzed data about federal and state prison deaths to help track health and safety problems. But that stopped in 2019 on the eve of the pandemic because of bureaucratic changes within the department. Since then, it has published only imprecise counts of fatalities, which often do not match the complete data.

A bipartisan Senate investigation in September found that the department was “failing to effectively implement” a 2013 law that required data collection. The Government Accountability Office also looked into the matter, and found that the department’s figures for 2021 had missed at least 340 deaths reported publicly by states.

After that investigation, Maureen Henneberg, deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, told the Senate that the department had trouble gathering information because there was “significant underreporting of deaths in custody” in many states, and that the department “would like to work with Congress to improve the collection of this data.” The Justice Department did not respond to requests for further comment.

The U.C.L.A. Law project is among various efforts trying to fill that void. Researchers used public records requests and other means to collect data — which included the tally of deaths, and in many cases, information like the cause of death and the age of the inmate — from 49 states and the federal government. Data from 2021 is only partially complete, but reports from 28 states that together house about half the country’s prisoners showed death rates above prepandemic levels.

“It is essential that we as the public know what happens in institutions that incarcerate people in our name,” Mr. Littman said. “But unfortunately that has never been the case to the appropriate extent, and it has become worse over time.”

Aging Behind Bars

Nationally, the prison population is graying — in part because of inmates who were incarcerated under tough sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2009, about 10 percent of all prisoners were 50 or older; by 2019, that number had jumped to 21 percent, according to the Justice Department. By the time they reach their 50s, prisoners are considered elderly, their expected life spans shortened by their years behind bars and, in many cases, drug use and poverty.