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 U.S. 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 U.S. government appear to undercount the number of infections dramatically in correctional settings, Reuters found.
In a May 6 report, the U.S. 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 United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of more than 2.2 million as of 2018, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and just under 740,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
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