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COVID-19 Recedes In Prisons, But Conditions Could Spell Future Outbreaks

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A new report out this week highlights just how much the pandemic affected people inside prisons throughout the United States. The report, published jointly by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project, says more than half a million people who are incarcerated or who work in prisons contracted COVID-19 in a 15-month period during the pandemic. Here to tell us more about this is one of the report's authors, Katie Park. She's a data journalist for The Marshall Project, which is a nonpartisan group that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Katie Park, thanks so much for joining us.

KATIE PARK: Hi, thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: So as we just heard, more than a half a million people contracted COVID in prison. I'm wondering if you can put that number in context for us, Katie. How does the overall infection rate for people inside prisons compare to outside?

PARK: So among both prisoners and prison staff, about 3 in 10 people were infected with the coronavirus. And that's a rate about three times that of the general population. It's worth noting also that that's very likely an undercount. Public health experts who have inspected prisons have told us that there are major gaps in testing. People who are probable cases of COVID are not getting tested. So it's possible we'll never know the full toll of the virus behind bars.

MCCAMMON: And beyond the number of people who became infected with the coronavirus, were you also able to count the number of people who died after contracting it in prison?

PARK: Yes, there were almost 3,000 people, both prisoners and prison staff, who died from complications of the virus in prison.

MCCAMMON: Of course, some of the reasons for this, you can kind of surmise conditions inside prisons are not well-suited to what needs to happen during a pandemic. You think of crowding, lots of shared spaces. And I want to play a clip that you've provided to NPR. This is Derrick Johnson. He was incarcerated at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami, Fla., until last December. And here's what he had to say about the conditions he experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DERRICK JOHNSON: Conditions in prison are probably the worst you could be in during a pandemic. You cannot social distance. You just can't. So you pray for the best, and you do what you can. But, you know, not much that you can do when you're dealing with 60-something other men, you know, in a certain whatever-by-whatever parameter of housing. So - and then you got a roommate, which is, like, not even two feet away from you let alone six feet. So, yeah, it was pretty scary for certain. For sure, it was pretty scary.

MCCAMMON: Very scary. How indicative is Mr. Johnson's experience of the kinds of conditions incarcerated people are facing in these facilities around the country?

PARK: I would say that his experience was pretty common. Prisons are by nature a high risk of infectious disease. There are a lot of people who are confined to a very small space, and they're also an environment that experiences a lot of overcrowding. So like he notes, it's nearly impossible to actually socially distance or physically distance within a prison environment. There's also the matter of lack of access to supplies. Outside of prisons, we do have access to masks, to hand sanitizer and disinfectants, and that's just not as accessible to people who are incarcerated. There also are major problems with staffing, short-staffing in prisons, which makes it more difficult to access medical care.

MCCAMMON: And what about vaccination? We've heard about challenges for the vaccination rollout in many parts of the country, especially in underserved communities. How are vaccination rates inside prisons? And are incarcerated people able to get them?

PARK: So the vaccine rollout was a little slow to take place behind bars. But there are states that prioritized prisons in the vaccine rollout as well as prison staff because these are congregate settings, like nursing homes are. The majority of states now have vaccinated over half their prison population. And there are a couple states where vaccination rates are over 80%.

The big hurdle there, though, is there's far more vaccine hesitancy amongst correctional staff. In most states, vaccination rates in staff really lag behind those of people who are incarcerated. And staff are the people who account for most of the movement in and out of prisons. Controlling the spread of the virus isn't going to take just vaccination on the part of the people who are incarcerated but also of the people who work there because it's all one kind of big ecosystem.

MCCAMMON: As the country tries to emerge from the pandemic, we're hearing a lot about the threat from new coronavirus variants, like the delta variant, of course, a lot of good news about vaccines, protectiveness from vaccines there but still a worry. With that in mind, are prisons prepared for what may come next?

PARK: Well, the vaccination effort has been pretty successful in prisons. Fortunately, cases right now are very low, and they have been for more than a month. But as more prisoners are vaccinated and as cases stay low, we're seeing prisons begin to return to normal, to loosen restrictions, allow more visitation, start more transfers and accept more people from county jails. So if we are seeing prisons start to open up more to move people from place to place and as prison populations start to come up, there's definitely a possibility that more outbreaks could occur in the future.

MCCAMMON: That's Katie Park, a journalist with The Marshall Project and co-author of a new report looking at COVID-19 conditions inside U.S. prisons. Katie Park, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

PARK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "CALM GREY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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