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Virus cases in US prisons and jails surpass 500,000

The number of inmates and guards known to have been infected with the coronavirus at American correctional institutions exceeded 500,000 on Monday, according to a New York Times database.

As correctional institutions have been battered by coronavirus infections and deaths, the number of cases reported in has risen by nearly 84 percent in the last two months, according to a Times analysis of the data from some 2,600 prisons, jails and immigration detention centers.

There are now 88 facilities that have had at least 1,000 infections, according to the database.

Local jails and state prison systems have been so devastated by the virus that they have resorted to the drastic strategy of shutting down completely and transferring inmates elsewhere. Experts say the jails and prisons that stay open will probably become even more crowded, unsanitary and disease ridden, and the transfers are likely to help the virus proliferate both inside and outside the walls.

At the same time, some states, like California and Washington, have begun vaccinating older and medically vulnerable prisoners. Even so, inmates and their families say that the crescendo of new cases has made incarcerated people more afraid of dying from the virus now than they have ever been.

“Five families called me on New Year’s Day,” said Beverly Brooks, who manages a prison advocacy program for the Covenant Fellowship of Churches International based in Florida. “They’re really scared for their loved ones. And the inmates are like, ‘OK, is this a way for me to die?’”

At Lumberton Correctional Institute in North Carolina, Shannon Nyamodi, an inmate, said he worried about prisoners with health issues sleeping an arm’s length from other inmates. More than 220 prisoners at Lumberton have tested positive, including a man Mr. Nyamodi knew who died over the summer.

“There’s a mass fear of contracting the virus for a big handful of prisoners,” he said. “They weren’t sentenced to death, they were just sentenced to do a few months or a few years here.”

A prisoner at the Allenwood federal complex in Pennsylvania, Aaron Kinzer, said he regularly watched staff members walk back and forth between his unit and a quarantine area without changing their protective gowns or masks.

Early in the pandemic last spring, he said, there were relatively few cases at Allenwood and prisoners worried mainly about loved ones on the outside. As illnesses inside the facility have piled up since then — nearly 700 inmates have tested positive — so has a sense of despair.

“The mood in here reflects the greater society’s mood, and has throughout the pandemic,” Mr. Kinzer said. “Early on, there was a lackadaisical approach — a belief that, you know, it was not going to touch us.” But after an inmate died of Covid-19 in August, he said, “hearing that it’s so close — just feet away, 100 yards away, 200 yards away — kind of drove it home.”

Ms. Brooks said her son Jonathan Brooks called her last week from Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh, N.C., after hearing rumors that a group of inmates would soon be transferred in. Similar transfers have touched off deadly outbreaks in prisons across the nation. Rumors like that, and of more inmates falling ill, can intensify the dread in the cell blocks.

“Every time this happens, they’re thinking, ‘Will I be next?’” Ms. Brooks said. “My son was like, ‘I just want to get out of here, Mama. I’ve got to get out of here.’”

— Ann Hinga Klein and Maura Turcotte

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