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Coronavirus taking heavy toll on US prison population

A prison cell block at the El Reno federal correctional institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. (Photo by AFP)

The prison population in the United States, the largest in the world, is being badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic even as officials are saying the disease has plateaued.

More than 80 percent of the nearly 2,500 inmates at a prison in Marion, Ohio as well as 175 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, making it the most heavily infected institution across the country.

According to COVID Prison Data, a group of university criminal justice and data experts, over 13,400 inmates and more than 5,300 correctional staff across the nation have contracted the disease.

The death toll from the virus is also rising in jails and penitentiaries across the US, with officials having few options. They are not able to enforce adequate social distancing measures in crowded cells and cannot meet the needs for medical personnel and personal protective gear everywhere.

The recent death of a pregnant Native American woman incarcerated in a federal prison in Texas has sparked outrage.

 Andrea Circle Bear, 30, was diagnosed with coronavirus and died in federal custody on Tuesday, officials said. She had delivered her baby by caesarean section while on a ventilator in a Texas hospital on 1 April.

In some prisons in Washington state and Kansas, lack of adequate protection and sluggish responses by prison authorities have triggered riots there.

At the understaffed, undersupplied Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas for example, a 15-year prison guard resigned on Thursday, saying he preferred to go without pay than endanger his health and that of his family.

"I can no longer be associated with a facility that is a ticking time bomb," David Carter said in a resignation letter.

Testing and reporting have been disorganized due to the hotchpotch of prison management. Some prisons are federal- or state-run, many are run by for-profit private companies in addition to some others run by local authorities.

Many states, and the federal penitentiary system, have carried out a limited number of tests. Out of 50 US states, five do not even report data.

Most prisons also operate at low levels of hygiene, and a substantial number of prisoners have preexisting conditions.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal reported a shortage of testing supplies, saying that quarantining remains difficult.

"We don't have the option to close our doors, or pick who or when someone is sent to our custody," he said on Wednesday.

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