Why aren’t there more Covid-19 deaths in U.S. prisons?

There are about 2.3 million prisoners in the United States, and so far the number of reported Covid-19 deaths is 251, or higher by the time you are reading this.  If you know of a better data source, please let me know.

For purposes of contrast, Rhode Island has about a million people and currently 266 deaths (and rising).  Connecticut has 2,339 Covid-19 deaths, and a population of about 3.5 million, or in other words almost ten times the deaths as the prisons without having even twice the population.  In other words, at least nominally the prison system seems to be doing better against Covid-19 than either The Nutmeg State or The Ocean State.

And I read this kind of line quite frequently:

Ohio officials found that more than 80% of those inmates had the virus with the vast majority showing no symptoms.

Yet asymptomatic cases in non-prison samples are often in the 40-50% range, not higher.  Furthermore, the Bureau of Prisons just tested 2000 prisoners (how random a sample?…but don’t forget the false negatives!) and 70% tested positive.  Again, the death rate does not seem to be through the ceiling.

How can this heterogeneity be?  I see a few options:

1. Actual Covid-19 deaths in prisons are much higher than reported.  This is quite possible, though I don’t see the media coverage that might go along with this.  At the very least, prisons might have longer death reporting and classification lags than does Connecticut.

2. Prison deaths are about to explode, due to exponential growth in the number of cases and their progression through time.  Again, this is quite possible, but you know what?  I thought of writing this post a few weeks ago and then figured I would be refuted by an explosion of the death total over the next few weeks.  So far it hasn’t happened.  It may yet.

3. Prisoners are younger.  Here is data on inmate ages, they are not that much younger than the general U.S. population.  But they are somewhat younger, and surely this is one factor.

4. Prisoners smoke a lot, and nicotine actually may have protective properties against Covid-19.  And is obesity low in prison?  I do not know.  Still, I don’t think of prisoners as a group in perfect physical health.

5. Prisoners are…um…locked up.  The superspreaders just aren’t that super, there are not many new entrants to the prison population, few tourists from Italy, and so on.  Not only do they live in cells, but the prison system as a whole is like thousands of scattered islands.

I see 1-5 all as possible significant options, with #4 as the weakest candidate.  What else might be playing a role here?


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