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New Data Shows 61% Rise in U.S. Prison Deaths in 2020. Only One (1) Media Outlet Reported On It.
Amid wall-to-wall coverage of "organized" shoplifting, an unprecedented rise in deaths inside America’s prisons brought upon by reckless Covid policy is met with a collective yawn.
A delayed release of statistics about U.S. federal and state prisons by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showed a startling increase in deaths from 2019 to 2020, from 4,200 to 6,100. This was despite an overall reduction in the prison population by almost 10 percent, from 608,026 in 2019 to 549,622 in 2020. (This population decrease was due to a reduction of new admissions caused by a fall in crime rates during the 2020 lockdowns. The number of prisoners released actually went down.) In absolute terms, this is a death increase of 46 percent. When adjusted for mortality rate, because the overall population was reduced, it’s a total death increase of 61 percent—by far the highest rate since statistics have been kept on prison deaths.
This is, by all objective metrics, a major scandal. In the early days of Covid, prison activists called for significant release of those incarcerated, just as countries like France, Iran, Germany, and Colombia had done, to prevent mass infections and death. Aside from some token releases—that were later offset by new admissions—mayors and governors from both parties and the Trump White House ignored these pleas entirely. It was just going to be business as usual. News reports of mass infections and inadequate doctors and staff, compounding what was already inadequate healthcare, and one-off stories about prisoners' deaths could be found here and there. But generally, the plight of the incarcerated during Covid was not an urgent issue for U.S. media.
One (1) media outlet, NPR, did report on this new data. On Jan. 22, Michel Martin of All Things Considered interviewed Wendy Sawyer from the Prison Policy Initiative, one of the few organizations monitoring and drawing attention to the crushing healthcare crisis in America's prisons. The report, headlined “New data shows startling rise in prison deaths during 2020,” detailed how deaths were up 46 percent. (As mentioned earlier, when accounting for the reduction of prison population by 58,400, it’s closer to 61 percent.) And, despite being bogged down by the typical NPR-ese sober tones, the report examined the role negligent Covid policies had on the massive death toll. Had mortality rates remained the same as in 2019, the total number of deaths would have been 3,792 when accounting for the decline in overall incarcerated population. This means 2020 saw 2,308 excess deaths largely brought about by Covid and its tertiary effects, including lack of capacity for other urgent health problems due to overwhelming cases of the virus.
In other words, activists' fears came true. As Covid spread throughout the country at the beginning of the pandemic, there were no real mitigation efforts by states and federal prison authorities other than locking prisoners in their cells all day—which did little to stop the spread of Covid and also had tremendous negative health effects on incarcerated people, compounding the trauma of serving time during a pandemic. Even today, many prisons are being ripped apart by Omicron, the vast bulk unable to get essential booster shots. More than 40 states have no plans to provide boosters for the incarcerated.
The BJS data doesn’t include local jails, immigration detention centers, youth prisons, or involuntary commitment, so the toll is likely much higher.
It’s safe to assume that if the government published statistics showing a 61 percent increase in carjackings, this would solicit wall-to-wall coverage in the United States. If there was an uptick of 61 percent in assaults we’d have blue ribbon commissions, nonstop debates on cable, and demagoguing politicians calling for longer and tougher sentences. If there were a 61 percent increase in shoplifting we wouldn’t stop hearing about it. Indeed, over 300 outlets ran reports on a single shoplifting incident in July 2021. That’s 300 reports about a single shoplifting incident compared to one (1) showing an unprecedented rise in needless deaths in America’s already cruel and over-packed prisons. The lives our media chooses to care about, or rather—in the case of many outlets—the retail products it chooses to care about, says everything about our media priorities. And in this case, it shows that, broadly speaking, those anonymously and unceremoniously wasting away in our prisons are expendable. And their deaths? Not particularly newsworthy.