1214 GMT May 31, 2020
When COVID-19 began tearing through Detroit’s county jail system in March, authorities had no diagnostic tests to gauge its spread. But the toll became clear as deaths mounted. First, one of the sheriff’s jail commanders died; then, a deputy in a medical unit.
“Working in the Wayne County Jail has now become a DEATH sentence!” the head of the deputy sheriffs’ union, Reginald Crawford, wrote on Facebook as the losses mounted.
By mid-April, the jail system’s medical director and one of its doctors also had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The virus was everywhere, but jail officials had little sense of who was infected and spreading it.
Testing of inmates and staff – needed to determine who should be quarantined to slow transmission – was just getting started. In the weeks since, more than 200 staff and inmates have tested positive.
COVID-19 has spread rapidly behind bars in Detroit and across the nation, according to an analysis of data gathered by Reuters from 20 county jail systems, 10 state prison systems and the US Bureau of Prisons, which runs federal penitentiaries.
But scant testing and inconsistent reporting from state and local authorities have frustrated efforts to track or contain its spread, particularly in local jails. And figures compiled by the US government appear to undercount the number of infections dramatically in correctional settings, Reuters found.
In a May 6 report, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 54 state and territorial health departments for data on confirmed COVID-19 infections in all correctional facilities – local jails, state prisons and federal prisons and detention centers. Thirty-seven of those agencies provided data between April 22-28, reporting just under 5,000 inmate cases.
Reuters documented well over three times the CDC’s tally of COVID-19 infections – about 17,300 – in its far more modest survey of local, state and federal corrections facilities conducted about two weeks later. The Reuters survey encompassed jails and prisons holding only 13% of the more than 2 million people behind bars nationwide. Among state prisons doing mass testing of all inmates, Reuters found, some are seeing infection rates up to 65%.
The CDC tally “is dramatically low,” said Aaron Littman, a teaching fellow specializing in prison law and policy at the law school of the University of California, Los Angeles. “We don’t have a particularly good handle” on COVID-19 infections in many correctional and detention facilities, “and in some places we have no handle at all.”
Problems with unreliable data aren’t unique to corrections. Epidemiologists say the incidence of COVID-19 in the general US population also is unclear due to limited testing, especially in the pandemic’s early days. And the CDC acknowledged in its report that its infection count for jails and prisons was similarly hampered by spotty data and “not representative” of the disease’s true prevalence in those facilities.
But uneven testing for COVID-19 in correctional settings and erratic reporting of confirmed cases have profound implications for health officials and policy makers tracking its spread, because epidemiologists see jails and prisons as key pathways of transmission.