Criminal Justice

Ray Carter | September 22, 2020

COVID-19 rate up in prisons, but few get sick

Ray Carter

In recent weeks, COVID-19 rates have surged in Oklahoma prisons, contributing significantly to higher overall rates in many counties across the state. But even as infection rates surged in prisons, resulting sickness from the virus has been minimal.

“Ninety-two percent of those today are asymptomatic,” said Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow.

At a Tuesday press conference, Crow said the state has tested 14,010 inmates, or 64.3 percent of the prison population, for COVID-19, and 3,168 inmates had tested positive as of Sept. 22. Just 1,398 offenders, or 6.4 percent of the inmate population, remain positive cases. Less than one out of 10 positive cases among inmates resulted in symptoms.

Crow said 590 DOC staff have been tested, and 278 had positive results. Just 63 of those individuals are currently positive cases.

So far, 22 inmates have been hospitalized who tested positive for COVID-19. Nine inmates have died who tested positive for COVID, but Crow noted “all of those individuals had comorbidities that contributed to their deteriorating health.”

“In many of the instances where we’ve had inmates that expired, they actually went to the hospital for other comorbidities and while they were at the hospital they tested positive,” Crow said. “To date, of the nine that we’ve had die, only two have been confirmed as a death directly related to COVID.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the state is increasing testing of correctional staff and officers, and offering hazard pay for those who work in facilities with high rates of COVID-19 infection.

“Those folks have incredibly difficult jobs and it’s important to provide them with this little bit of extra support,” Stitt said.

Officials did not specify the amount of hazard pay that will be provided.

The pay raises will be funded through existing Department of Corrections funds, not federal funding provided the state for COVID response. Officials noted that a mass commutation last year reduced the overall prison population and allowed the state to close one 1,600-bed private prison in Cushing, generating $24 million in annual savings.

Officials plan to administer COVID-19 tests to 25 percent of corrections staff each week.

Overall, Stitt noted the death rate for Oklahomans infected with COVID remains among the lowest in the country.

“We have the 14th-lowest death rate per capita,” Stitt said. “That means 60-percent more Oklahomans are recovering than the national average. That shows many of our cases are asymptomatic.”

The rate of COVID tests that result in a positive test in Oklahoma remains comparable to the rates in surrounding states, he said.

Along with prison inmates, college students are the other group in Oklahoma that represents many new cases of COVID-19 infection in recent weeks. But, as with inmates, the seriousness of the associated illness has often been minimal.

“Remember, most college students are asymptomatic,” Stitt said. “As a matter of fact, in Oklahoma 99.99 percent of people under the age of 25 have recovered from this virus.”

In one significant way, the response of individuals behind bars has mirrored the attitude of many Oklahomans on the other side of prison walls.

“Sometimes, just as we see in the public, especially with our inmate populations, they’re adverse to wearing masks,” Crow said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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