Population density is directly related to the spread of the virus and also to measuring our methods in combatting the pandemic. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, a unique event was the spread of the virus on cruise liners. For a time, The Diamond Princess cruise ship was the sight of the largest outbreak in the world outside of China. Passengers packed aboard the ocean vessels made easy targets for the virus and turned their secluded vacation spots into dens of diseased confinement.

When the virus spread to the US, nursing homes highlighted this same reality. A vulnerable population living in close quarters and unable to socially distance from one another became a fertile bed for the virus to spread and contaminate thousands. The vulnerability of nursing homes started at the outbreak in Seattle, but the trend continued across the country.

As the US became the epicenter of the global pandemic, the threat the coronavirus posed to prisons remained a subtle background to the crisis. Today there is evidence that suggests American prisons have become home to the most significant outbreaks to date in the US.

Pandemic in American Prisons

By May 1, only 1% of the Texas prison system’s population had tested for the coronavirus. Among those tested, 1,600 inmates were positive. At least 25 prisoners and staff members died of the virus. More than 70% of those tested were positive for the virus. The spread of coronavirus in prisons is not a Texas problem. It is a nationwide American problem even as many states still exclude infected prisoners from their confirmed coronavirus case totals.

According to the Marshall Project, by the end of last week, more than 25,000 prisoners tested positive for the virus – a 25% increase over the prior week.

Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Michigan have led the nation with aggressive coronavirus testing in their prisons. The surge in confirmed prison system cases over April and into May has been the result of steps taken in these states. In many other areas of the country, testing within the prison systems is virtually non-existent.

New York City’s ten jails had more than 1,400 inmates, and guards test positive. Still, the New York City Department of Correction refuses to provide specific information regarding the outbreaks at each jail. Less than 1% of New York state’s prison system population were tested for the virus by the end of April.

America’s two largest coronavirus clusters are based within Ohio’s prison systems. In a Marion County Ohio facility, more than 2,000 inmates, nearly 80% of the population tested positive for the virus. Inmates make up over 20% of Ohio’s total confirmed cases. Ohio has a prison population of 49,000. By the end of last week,  4,400 prisoners and nearly 600 staff members were positive for the coronavirus. There is no quarantining here. There is no social distancing. A prisoner or guard who tests negative at the beginning of the week may very likely be positive by the end of the week.

A prison system in Tennessee has more than 1,000 confirmed cases.

Arkansas initiated mass testing among the prison population in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. By mid-April, one-third of all coronavirus cases in the state were prisoners. Today Arkansas has 4,759 confirmed cases of coronavirus within the state; 1,066 of these are within the prisons (22.3%).

There are 5,000 detention centers and prisons within the US. These facilities and homes are the locations of the most significant and most severe aspects of the pandemic in America to date.

Additional Reading about the coronavirus pandemic in American prisons: