U.S. Virus Death Toll Could Double in Prisons, ACLU Says

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(Bloomberg) --

The Trump administration’s projections for U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic may be half the actual toll because they aren’t fully accounting for the nation’s high prison population, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Models that properly account for the roughly 740,000 people in jail in the U.S. on any given day suggest the country will experience “much higher death rates” than currently projected if inmate populations aren’t reduced rapidly, the organization said in a statement about its findings on Wednesday.

The group said it based its estimate on the administration’s projection of 100,000 fatal coronavirus cases in the broader population, saying it undercounted deaths by 98%. The 100,000 figure was actually at the low end of a range topping out at 240,000 put forth by the White House coronavirus task force at the end of March. Earlier this month, the administration revised its estimates for deaths from the coronavirus to around 60,000.

A spokeswoman for Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the task force, said the White House would not comment on an outside virus model.

“The prevailing epidemiological models largely fail to take into account our incarceration rates and the complete absence of social distancing in our jails –- which is why we had to build our own model,” Lucia Tian, the ACLU’s chief analytics officer, said in the statement.

With 4% of world’s population but 21% of its prisoners, “the U.S. faces a unique challenge in mitigating the spread of Covid-19 and is likely facing a much higher death count than models based on data from other countries predict,” the ACLU said.

The civil rights organization, which has filed dozens of lawsuits to get non-violent inmates released from jails, said it used data from more than 1,200 facilities around the U.S. and found that keeping more people out of jails would ultimately save lives, including in the surrounding communities.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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