One in every five state and federal prisoners in the US has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by the AP and the Marshall Project. As the pandemic enters its 10th month—and as the first Americans receive a COVID-19 vaccine—at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died, and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing. New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August. "That number is a vast undercount," said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York's Rikers Island jail. He's conducted more than a dozen court-ordered COVID-19 prison inspections around the country. "I still encounter prisons and jails where, when people get sick, not only are they not tested, but they don’t receive care. So they get much sicker than need be," he said.
Now the rollout of vaccines poses difficult decisions for politicians and policymakers. As the virus spreads behind bars, prisoners can't social distance and are dependent on the state for their safety. Donte Westmoreland, 26, was recently released from Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas, where he caught the virus while serving time on a marijuana charge. Some 5,100 prisoners have become infected in Kansas prisons, the third-highest rate in the country, behind South Dakota and Arkansas. "It was like I was sentenced to death," Westmoreland said. He lived with more than 100 virus-infected men in an open dorm, where he woke up regularly to find men sick on the floor, unable to get up, he said. "People are actually dying in front of me off of this virus," he said. "It's the scariest sight." Westmoreland sweated it out, shivering in his bunk until, six weeks later, he recovered. "If we are going to end this pandemic—bring down infection rates, bring down death rates, bring down ICU occupancy rates—we have to address infection rates in correctional facilities," said Emily Wang, professor at Yale School of Medicine. (New Jersey freed 2,200 inmates in one day.)