Yesenia Lara spoke to her uncle on the phone nearly every day until May 1. Raul Rodriguez, 61, who was in a Texas county jail after a DUI conviction, had struggled with alcoholism but was a loving man who was “outgoing, always laughing,” she said.
He told her there were about 15 to 20 other inmates in his cell and that they cut up shirts to use as face masks. He mentioned his throat hurt.
And then she didn’t hear from him again. A little more than two weeks after their last conversation, she said authorities notified her family he had died of Covid-19.
“My uncle was a strong man,” Lara said. “He still had life in him. And I feel like that was just taken from him.”
Rodriguez is one among hundreds of thousands of people who have been infected with Covid-19 inside the country’s jails and prisons – and among hundreds who have died.
There have been more than 330,000 cases among prison inmates, according to the Covid Prison Project, which tracks Covid-19 across the nation’s correctional facilities, and more than 1,900 deaths. Thousands more cases have been detected across the nation’s jails, where experts say Covid-19 data is scarce and hard to track. And it’s not just inmates: More than 77,000 prison staff tested positive and more than 110 have died, according to the project.
“If we just purely look at the epidemiology of Covid-19 where the outbreaks have been, it’s really hard to ignore jails and prisons,” says Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-founder of the project. “They’ve really been the epicenter in many ways.”
As the pandemic enters a new chapter, with two authorized Covid-19 vaccines on the US market, leading public health professionals have called for incarcerated people and corrections staff to be prioritized in vaccinations. It’s the nation’s moral responsibility, several experts told CNN, but also a move that will help in the recovery of other communities.
“Prisons and jails are not a place apart, they’re very connected to the communities that they’re in,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said. “We have staff and people who are released from jail and prison, moving out of the correctional space into their home communities. And if you have exposure in prisons or jails, then you’re likely to bring that exposure into the surrounding community.”
In its vaccine-allocation recommendations, the CDC’s advisory committee listed corrections officers in Phase 1b, alongside other groups the agency deemed frontline essential workers. And while incarcerated populations aren’t explicitly mentioned in any of the phases, the group