Omicron Outbreaks in Prisons Put Everyone at Risk, But Data Is Scarce

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 presents a unique public health threat as the highly contagious virus drives infection rates to record highs, but a dearth of data on COVID in jails and prisons across the United States is leaving researchers, incarcerated people and the public in the dark about outbreaks that put everyone at risk.

The law school at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) tracks the pandemic in jails and prisons, where rates of COVID infection and death are often multiple times higher than in the free population. Jails and prisons have reported 451,000 COVID infections and nearly 7,000 deaths among incarcerated people nationally as of January 1, but Josh Manson, a spokesman for UCLA’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, said researchers think the actual number of infections is much higher.

Manson said hard data on infections, deaths and vaccinations among incarcerated people and prison guards are inconsistently reported, manipulated and even hidden by the sheriffs and prison officials. Jails and prisons across the country restricted access to COVID data in 2021 or stopped public reporting altogether. This is especially troubling, according to researchers, because advocates, policymakers, incarcerated people and their families rely on this data to gauge health risks and hold prisons accountable.

“It was hard to get good data before Omicron, and it’s harder now,” Manson said in an interview. “Prisons and jails generally, and especially jails, have been a block box for data and especially health data, so it’s been really frightening throughout the whole pandemic to not know what’s going on inside.”

Prisons and jails are not prepared for Omicron, researchers say, putting many more people at risk as deadly outbreaks spread from behind prison walls to surrounding communities and contribute to millions of infections. The latest variant is incredibly contagious and, though it often causes milder symptoms among the vaccinated, vaccination and testing regimes at jails and prisons vary widely between facilities and from state to state. The same goes for reporting COVID data to the public, making Omicron behind bars extremely difficult to track.

If incarcerated people and guards are not tested regularly, they will unknowingly spread the virus in the confines of jails and prisons, where health care is notoriously inadequate, living conditions are poor and crowded, and solitary confinement — a common response to COVID infections — leaves thousands of people with long-term physical and mental health problems.

“I am personally worried that there are lot of asymptomatic and mild cases of COVID that are not being tested for and spreading in jails and prisons right now,” Manson said.

Using available data from state prisons, researchers estimated that one in three prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 in February 2021, before vaccines reached many prisoners and the Delta and Omicron variants emerged. Today, it appears that the number of infections in state prisons has dropped — but the public only has access to data that prison officials are willing to report, which is often outdated, incomplete or missing.

Manson said many local jails do not report case totals, and prisons in several states are not reporting the cumulative number of cases either. Louisiana, for example, only reports current active cases. The data we do have on infections is only as good as testing is widespread, and Manson said testing practices are often “abysmal.” Many sites of incarceration do not report cumulative test results and positivity rates. Of course, there is an unknown number of cases that are not detected by tests.

Vaccination is considered the best defense against COVID, but data on vaccinations is “scarce and incomplete” across state and federal prison systems, according to a recent review of available data by the Prison Policy Initiative.

As of December 14, prisons in only four states — Delaware, Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota — were releasing data on booster shots for incarcerated people. More recently, Montana’s prison system announced a booster program, and Hawaii began offering cash incentives for incarcerated people to get jabs this week. However, researchers were left with no evidence that boosters are available to incarcerated people in dozens of states.

In August, as the Delta variant reared its ugly head, the COVID Behind Bars Data Project released a scathing report detailing decisions by prisons in states with some of the largest COVID outbreaks — including Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas — to restrict pandemic data or stop reporting altogether. Florida, for example, was a major COVID hotspot in the U.S. and globally for much of last summer, but on June 2 the Florida Department of Corrections stopped reporting data on COVID in state prisons.

While most states report some data in one format or another, Manson said online “dashboards” often go without updates for weeks or are replaced by PDF reports that cause trouble for web scrapers used by researchers. Only three states report data on all five metrics identified by the Prison Policy Initiative as crucial for understanding the pandemic and holding prisons and policymakers accountable, including cumulative counts of tests, vaccinations and cases. Across the country, data that prisons made available while the media focused on the massive outbreaks of 2020 has dried up.

“A year ago — when the information peaked, and before Delta arrived — prisons slowly started reporting less information because they felt it wasn’t necessary, or wasn’t worth their resources, or they thought ‘the pandemic is over,’” Manson said. “Or, they just found an opening and an excuse to start hiding their data.”

For example, earlier this year the UCLA researchers noticed the cumulative number of COVID cases — the number that represents cases over the entire course of the pandemic –reported in federal prisons was dropping, which didn’t make sense. It turned out the Bureau of Prisons was subtracting from its case total when prisoners who had COVID were released, allowing the federal prison system to report fewer overall cases. Only Maryland reports the number of booster shots administered to prison guards, who have refused vaccines at alarming rates and fought mandates in court.

Social distancing is impossible in jails and prisons. In its place, many sites of incarceration have deployed solitary confinement, which is a form of torture.

Incarcerated people continue to report terrifying conditions: An anonymous woman incarcerated at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California, told advocates that there’s no way to avoid COVID in prison.

“I had over a dozen negative tests since they started testing for COVID only to have them move two inmates into our dorm while we’re on quarantine,” the incarcerated woman said in an oral history project earlier this year. “Both arrived complaining of still not having taste or sense of smell, and within a few days of arriving one began to have symptoms, fever and chills but would avoid the daily temperature checks. Within a week two more had fevers, by that time it was too late.”

Across the country, people jailed inside the nation’s vast network of immigration jails reported “unsanitary and uninhabitable living conditions and denial of adequate PPE and COVID-19 safety measures” in calls to the National Immigration Detention Hotline, according to the organization Freedom for Immigrants, which runs the hotline. Incarcerated immigrants say Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its contractors have been slow to make booster jabs available and provide vaccine information in different languages, and civil rights groups recently slammed ICE for failing to implement a national booster program for immigration prisons as of December.

ICE did not respond to an inquiry about booster shots by the time this story was published. Layla Razavi, interim co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, said ICE has failed to implement even the most basic COVID safety protocols and ignored court orders to release the medically vulnerable. At least 32,244 COVID infections occurred in immigration prisons and at least 11 people have over the course of the pandemic. However, like other jailers, the official tally reported by ICE has been disputed by observers.

“And since President Biden took office, the number of people inside detention has multiplied, placing more immigrants inside at an even greater risk,” Razavi said in an email. “Enough is enough. We call on President Biden to act swiftly and conduct releases before more people perish.”

There is some good news: Manson said vaccination rates among incarcerated people tend to be higher than national and statewide averages. However, it’s unclear if those who initially refuse vaccines can easily access shots if they change their minds.

“I would like to see some evidence that people who initially refused vaccinations are being continually offered it,” Manson said.