96 Deaths in Detention: A View of COVID-19 in the Federal Bureau of Prisons as Captured in Death Notices

On March 28th, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported the first death of someone in their custody: Patrick Jones, a 49-year old man held at Oakdale FCI in Louisiana, who had “complained of a persistent cough.” In the press release announcing Jones’s death, the BOP noted that he was evaluated by their staff on March 19th and then transported to the local hospital where he tested positive. He was put on a ventilator on March 20th, and died eight days later. 

Between March 28 and July 31,2020, there were 96 COVID-19 related deaths in 22 prisons managed by the BOP.

Our new occasional paper, “96 Deaths in Detention: a view of COVID-19 in the Federal Bureau of Prisons as captured in death notices” (World Peace Foundation Occasional Paper 23, August 26, 2020), by Bridget Conley and Matthew Siegel analyzes all 96 press releases issued by the BOP for each of these COVID-19 related deaths.

The press releases, what we are calling “death notices,” provide stark details about the person and key dates in the progression of the virus. Analysis of all 96 death notices reveals patterns whereby extremely sick people rarely received medical attention before their symptoms overwhelmed them. The notices, published by the BOP, help confirm the picture previously told by incarcerated people, advocates, lawyers, and journalists of inadequate medical attention in prisons run by the United States government. 

Key findings:
  • Men over age 65 are 2.8% of the total population within BOP prisons, and are 40.63% of the dead.
  • 78% of the people who died were not reported to have been in isolation before their condition deteriorated; suggesting that they were exposing other people (including both other incarcerated people and staff) at the facility to the disease. 
  • For 21% of those who died in BOP facilities, Day 0 [day BOP reported as first recognition of the person’s illness] included acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) or respiratory failure, requiring immediate hospitalization. The average time for a sick person to be transported to a hospital was 2.5 days, and the average time for patients to be put on a ventilator was 5.3 days. Thereafter, patients died within an average of 17.6 days.
  • 55% of people were not tested until they arrived at the hospital—and this percentage is even higher, 67%, during the first three months March – May. 

Part One provides background on the epidemic in American prisons, with focus on the BOP facilities. Part Two presents analysis of the 96 death notices, discussing trends and anomalous cases. Adding detail from outside the perspective of the BOP, Part Three turns to stories of people who died as covered in media accounts to illustrate concerns that have been raised about BOP’s handling of the epidemic. Part Four concludes. 

The full paper is available here.

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

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