By Katherine LeMasters and Lauren Brinkley-Rubenstein
August 3, 2023
In 2021, conditions in U.S. prisons were especially dire. Covid-19 deaths behind bars continued to outpace Covid-19 deaths in the general population. At the same time, new incarcerations increased the prison population in many facilities to the same overcrowded levels as before the pandemic. Visitation was restricted, and prisoners were unable to social distance, were rarely given personal protective equipment such as masks, and were exposed to extreme conditions such as solitary confinement — a practice usually reserved for punishment — and facility-wide lockdowns in the name of disease containment. Additionally, they often had to cope with mourning the losses of those dying around them from Covid-19.
As public health researchers who founded the COVID Prison Project, our team suspected these conditions were harming incarcerated peoples’ mental health, so we decided to study changes in suicide rates in prisons during the pandemic. But we couldn’t, because we discovered that most states do not adequately report these data — violating federal legislation.