Jails and prisons are superspreaders that need journalistic attention during the pandemic

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

If jails and prisons were nursing homes, we would be demanding answers about why we are not doing more to stop the spread of the coronavirus there. If they were universities or restaurants, you would be doing stories about whether there is a safer way to conduct business. But jails and prisons are superspreaders — in some cases the hottest hotspots in the country — and we keep sending people there to get sick and often, to die.

At one point, prisons and jails represented 44 of the top 50 COVID-19 clusters in the United States.

For a while, between March and May, prison populations dropped about 8% and counties reduced jail populations by about 11%. But when COVID-19 rates dropped in the summer, states lost their momentum of reducing lockup populations.

The Washington Post said, “A study prepared for the National Commission on Covdid-19 and Criminal Justice reports that the rate of coronavirus cases in federal and state prisons is more than four times the national rate. When adjusted for age, sex and ethnicity, the mortality rate in federal prisons is twice that of the general population.”

(from National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice study)

In Texas, about 80 percent of those who died in jails had not been convicted of a crime. Just over 230 people have died while in the custody of a Texas jail or prison, and 21 of them had already served 90% of their time. Nine more had been approved for parole but had not yet been released when they died.

The Marshall Project is tracking this problem unlike anybody else (go here to see Marshall’s state-by-state data).
The Marshall Project reports that America just passed a new milestone that nobody should celebrate:

By Nov. 10, at least 182,776 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, an 8 percent increase from the week before.

New infections this week rose sharply to their highest level since the start of the pandemic, far outpacing the previous peak in early August. Iowa, Michigan and the federal prison system each saw more than 1,000 prisoners test positive this week, while Texas prisons surpassed 2,000 new cases.

Reported cases first peaked in late April, when states such as Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners. Those initiatives suggested that coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known.

(The Marshall Project)

The UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program’s “Behind the Bars Data” project  has built a remarkable toolbox of data that will help journalists drill down on the multiple parts of this story. And these files are only part of the data they are collecting and sorting.


Here are some of the states with the largest number of known cases:

(The Marshall Project)

The Marshall Project counts 1,412 deaths among imprisoned people in the United States. Notice how even when cases slowed down over the summer nationwide, they barely slowed at all among jails and prisons.

(The Marshall Project)

Add to all of this 42,000 cases of COVID-19 among prison staff — and that is just from states that report such figures. The numbers only include people who call in sick and say they have the virus. So it is likely a wildly under-reported figure. Likewise, at least 93 prison workers have died from the virus.

WLS-TV (Chicago) investigative reporter Chuck Goudie is looking into federal prisons in Illinois and found in one federal prison in northwest Illinois, 13% of the all-male inmate population COVID-positive. The infected include 181 inmates and 14 staff. Another federal prison had 111 infected prisoners. Only Texas had more infected people in federal prisons. Goudie reports, “Since last March, 137 federal inmates and two employees have died.” Illinois state prisons know of at least 700 infected prisoners and 500 staff who have been infected with the coronavirus.

Sometimes vaccines sting. Sometimes they make you feel mild symptoms and sometimes they make your arm feel a little sore. And sometimes, they make your arm feel really sore. The aftereffects of the vaccines in development are not yet known, but nobody is going to be surprised if they include some or all of these symptoms. And any negative effect will be an excuse not to take the shots.

Those of us of a certain age know that the two-dose shingles vaccine includes sore arms in 78% of recipients. About 40% of the people who get the shot say they have muscle pain and fatigue. But if you have ever seen what shingles can do to a person, a little soreness is nothing by comparison.

Yahoo News points out that people need to be prepared and pay attention to the recommendation at the end of the second paragraph:

How public health experts explain such effects is important, Omer said. “There’s evidence that suggests that if you frame pain as a proxy of effectiveness, it’s helpful,” he said. “If it’s hurting a little, it’s working.”

At the same time, good communication will help consumers plan for such effects. A Covid-19 vaccine is expected to be distributed first to health care staffers and other essential workers, who may not be able to work if they feel sick, said Dr. Eli Perencevich, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at University of Iowa Health Care.

“A lot of folks don’t have sick leave. A lot of our essential workers don’t have health insurance,” he said, suggesting that essential workers should be granted three days of paid leave after they’re vaccinated. “These are the things a well-functioning government should provide for to get our economy going again.”

It is hard to imagine employers will offer days off if you get your vaccination. It seems more likely there will be a fight if you don’t.

I think it is likely that high-profile people, including sports stars and celebrities, maybe government leaders and TV anchors, will volunteer to step up and get the shots.

The Yahoo story added:

Such broad-based outreach will be necessary in a country where, as of mid-October, only half of Americans said they’d be willing to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

Discussing potential side effects early could counter misinformation that overstates or distorts the risk.

“The biggest tragedy would be if we have a safe and effective vaccine that people are hesitant to get,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Imagine what online rumors are going to say about any vaccine. If you think there has been opposition to mask-wearing, wait until you ask people to put a needle in their arm. The public information needs ahead will rival the scientific race to develop the drug and you journalists will be critical to that effort. You have two vital roles in fighting the pandemic. You are fulfilling one of them now by reporting the size and spread and prevention of the virus. Your role in the rush to vaccinate more than 7.5 billion people is about to emerge.

This is from USA Today:

Dr. Adam Jarrett, who serves as the chief medical officer at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey, said that the safest way to try to gather would be to get tested and then “truly self-quarantine for 10 days to two weeks.” With Thanksgiving falling on Nov. 26, that means quarantine should begin now.

“That’s the only way that we can be pretty close to 100% safe,” Jarrett said.

Today is the final day to file sex abuse lawsuits against The Boy Scouts of America. As of late Sunday, a stunning 81,000 people have come forward making claims that they were abused by scout leaders. The Boy Scouts are seeking bankruptcy protection and have assets of well over a billion dollars plus valuable assets such as camps.

At just the time when people say they are having all sorts of mental health challenges, therapists say telehealth is a great alternative, but does not work for everyone. A new trend is developing: counseling outdoors.
Parks, beaches and backyards are becoming meeting places where important conversations are unfolding.

When there are two TV anchors in the same household:


When you are a radio host and know how to make the strongest point in the fewest words:


We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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