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New data shows startling rise in prison deaths during 2020


As the country continues to struggle with the effects of the latest COVID surge, we wanted to take a look at how the pandemic has affected one particularly vulnerable population - those who are incarcerated. The number of people incarcerated across the United States dropped early on in the pandemic. That, it turns out, was due to COVID-related factors like staff shortages and halted courtroom procedures. But now the number of people in prisons and jails is back up, and disturbingly, deaths increased dramatically. Deaths increased 46% in prisons from 2019 to 2020, 32% among people on parole and 6% among people on probation. We don't yet know about jail deaths in 2020 because it hasn't yet been reported, but we know these things because the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released new data that can help us see how policy choices and emergency conditions in 2020 affected correctional facilities and incarcerated people during the first year of the pandemic. We called Wendy Sawyer to help us understand this information. She's been studying the numbers in her role as research director for the Prison Policy Initiative, and she's with us now. Wendy Sawyer, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

WENDY SAWYER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I know that you and other researchers as well as activists have an issue not just with what we're finding out but how long it takes to find these things out. But I'm going to ask you to hold that thought for a minute and just tell me what stood out to you from the data when you finally did get it.

SAWYER: Yeah. Well, I think that you have highlighted a couple of the main findings already. I mean, what really stands out to me immediately is that huge jump in deaths, particularly in prisons, and I think we can assume that the same was probably true in local jails, though we haven't seen that data yet.

MARTIN: Was that due to COVID infections?

SAWYER: We can't say for sure that it was due to COVID infections. The data don't break that out specifically, but I think that we can pretty safely assume that a lot of that was pandemic related in some way. Whether it was from COVID infections or whether it was from, you know, people having less access to regular health care, you know, due to the burden on the system, whether it was due to more overdoses or suicides, we won't know that for a while. But I think we can safely assume that many of those deaths were related to the virus.

MARTIN: Well, it is fascinating to think that even people who were not locked up - I mean, a 32% increase among people on parole and even an increase in people - of deaths of people on probation - these are people who, presumably, are not locked up. And so that is striking.

SAWYER: It is. I mean, I think part of that can be explained by the fact that correctional populations, by and large, have higher rates of chronic illness that would make them more vulnerable to things like COVID. So those deaths maybe are unsurprising, considering that they are still going to be medically vulnerable after release.

MARTIN: The Prison Policy Initiative has been tracking policy changes due to COVID-19 over the past couple of years. Could you just tell us about some of these changes and if there are any states that have been - or jurisdictions that have been better about creating policies to keep incarcerated people safe?

SAWYER: Yeah. I think the thing that I am paying the most attention to, really, is releases because what needs to happen is we need to be depopulating these facilities. There's really no way to keep people safe inside. So we saw California, New Jersey both rolled out some earned time credits, which allowed some people who were close to their release dates to go home a few months early. We also saw North Carolina, in response to an NAACP lawsuit, released people using some of those earned time credits and also home confinement and post-release supervision. So there are some states where we've seen intentional actions taken to get more people out.

MARTIN: The data on releases is interesting - I mean, that state and federal prisons actually released fewer people in 2020 than they did in 2019. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SAWYER: I mean, if you just looked at the overall numbers and said, oh, you know, there's 15% fewer people in prisons in 2020, that must mean that prisons were trying to keep people safe. I think that's not really what the data is telling us. The fact that all of that decrease in the population can be explained by drops in admissions and that, actually, fewer people were let out is sort of concerning. It tells me that was not any kind of intentional action taken by prison authorities to protect folks.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Wendy, I'm going to ask you to reflect more broadly on why people who are not connected to the incarcerated population should care about this. And I understand that people who work in this field are often asked this question, but I do have to ask because many people will say, you know - why should I care about this?

SAWYER: Yeah. You know, well, I think that the lives of people in prison matter, but I'm not naive. I know some people don't care about people in prison, and I'd say, if that's how you feel, then what I'm saying might not resonate with you. But the data doesn't have to make you care. It should make you think about what actually has been going on in prisons and jails. You know, the truth is worse than what many people would assume is going on.

Prison officials say part of their job is to take care of and, on occasion, to show mercy to incarcerated people. Yet they allowed releases to drop off in 2020. They let nearly 50% more people die. Maybe they don't actually believe that compassion is part of their job. Maybe they believe the opposite. I think that that's something that all of us should be thinking about is what is actually going on in prisons.

MARTIN: That was Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative. Wendy Sawyer, thank you so much for speaking with us today and sharing your expertise.

SAWYER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAZZY'S "MAKING CONTACT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.