The Mississippi Department of Corrections has reported that 108 people died in its prisons in 2020, a toll that was significantly higher than a year earlier. But as of Monday, the department had not disclosed whether any of those deaths were caused by the coronavirus, though more than 1,400 inmates have been infected since the pandemic’s start, according to state data.
Grace Fisher, a spokeswoman for the prison system, did not respond to email and phone inquiries about how the state prison system determines, records and makes public the causes of inmate deaths. A spokeswoman for Gov. Tate Reeves did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.
Many states report Covid-19 cases and deaths in online dashboards. Others report them in news releases or when requested.
Mississippi’s prison system has touted its handling of the virus, saying in a news release in December that its prisons “remain among the safest in the nation from the Covid-19 virus.”
Burl Cain, the state’s prison commissioner, said in May that the prison system had successfully managed the virus by restricting inmate transfers, suspending family visits and using increased cleaning and disinfection practices.
Advocates of greater transparency from prison authorities say it is unclear whether Mississippi’s prisons are opting not to disclose coronavirus deaths or if officials are uncertain of a full count because deaths are not being fully investigated.
Cliff Johnson, the director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center — which filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the number of prison deaths — said the lack of information about the causes of prison deaths represented a public safety threat.
All but three states have reported Covid-19 deaths in their prison systems. Vermont has recorded no prisoner deaths from the virus, a representative for that system said. Wyoming has not disclosed any deaths. But Mississippi’s prison system is far larger, with about 16,350 inmates, compared with just 3,200 in Wyoming and Vermont combined.
In New Jersey, whose prisons house about 15,000 inmates, at least 53 have died from Covid-19, according to state data.
The rate of coronavirus testing in Mississippi’s prisons is among the lowest in the nation. Since the pandemic began, only one in five prisoners has been tested, according to state records.