Mississippi Prison Officials Tout Low Rates of Covid. The Reason May Be Fewer Tests.

Mississippi officials are proud their prisons have some of the country’s lowest infection rates, but they’re not testing inmates without coronavirus symptoms.

Only 83 of the 1,200 men at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, Miss., have been tested for the coronavirus, state data shows.
Credit...Meggan Haller for The New York Times

Rebecca Griesbach and

At South Mississippi Correctional Institution, inmates said they bartered Honey Bun snack cakes for smuggled bleach in a desperate attempt to avoid the coronavirus, which has sickened nearly 400 men at the prison. Even as some fell ill, they said the prison refused to test them.

One inmate who lost his sense of taste and smell said he was left to mingle in a dormitory with dozens of other inmates and never did get a test.

At another of the state’s prisons, Larry Waldon said he washed himself in the shower with bleach — not soap — because he had seen guards go without masks and feared that his high blood pressure would make it hard to recover if he got the virus. At his prison, East Mississippi Correctional Facility, only 83 of the 1,200 men at the prison have been tested, state data shows.

Mississippi officials boast of having one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates among state prison systems, but 10 months into the pandemic, the state’s rate of testing is also among the lowest, a New York Times database shows.

Across the country, the coronavirus has battered prisons and jails, infecting more than half a million inmates and correctional officers, yet testing in some states has been so limited as to cloud their statistics on infections. Critics say the low testing numbers at Mississippi prisons and the high rate of positive results when they do test suggest a more extensive problem than the state has acknowledged.

“We think widespread testing is so important,” said Cliff Johnson, the director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center, part of a group that pushed for a legal agreement last year requiring the state’s corrections department to take more steps to protect inmates from the coronavirus. “Knowing exactly how many people have been infected in your facilities and exactly how many people have died is critically important if you are serious about remedying infections and saving lives.”

For months, Mississippi prison authorities asserted that no one had died from the coronavirus in their facilities. But this month, after being pressed by reporters, officials abruptly acknowledged that nearly two dozen prisoners had died from the virus. The authorities blamed the reporting delay on a backlog of autopsies.

Mississippi records show that about 9 percent of its inmates have been infected, a far smaller fraction than in many states. Nearly 60 percent of state prison inmates in Michigan have been infected and more than 40 percent in South Dakota.

But Mississippi has tested just 20 percent of its prisoners. Among those tested, the infection rate was more than 40 percent, a far higher positive rate than in neighboring Alabama, where two-thirds of inmates have been tested but 9 percent of those prisoners were found to be infected.

Mississippi’s prison system, the subject of a state financial probe and a federal investigation into deaths of inmates, has been violent, overcrowded and underfunded for decades.

But Mississippi prison authorities say Covid-19 has been a crisis their system has handled well. Officials announced in a news release last year that “Mississippi prisons remain among the safest in the nation from the Covid-19 virus.” Leo Honeycutt, a prison spokesman, said the system’s relatively low official rates of infection and death are a model for correctional institutions.

Of complaints that the system failed to conduct sufficient testing of inmates, officials said testing was only a small part of their Covid-19 strategy. They said inmates in Mississippi prisons were tested if they show symptoms.

Asked about specific claims by prisoners, including Mr. Waldon and the inmate who said he lost his sense of smell and taste and declined to be named out of concerns about the response of prison officials, the officials said they were unaware of those cases. Mr. Honeycutt said prison officials doubted that Mr. Waldon and others used bleach to clean themselves because prison medical staff had not been notified about injuries consistent with that practice.

Burl Cain, the state’s prison commissioner, said in a statement to The Times that the prison authorities had performed minimal testing in the early stages of the pandemic last year because officials were concerned about the accuracy of testing. In recent months, Mississippi prisons have increased testing some, he said.

Credit...Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Mr. Cain added that he had relied on methods he believed were more effective than testing, including restricting inmate transfers, suspending family visits and employing intensive cleaning and disinfection practices. The disinfection methods include the use of hand wand ultraviolet sterilization lights, air purifiers and sanitizing sprayers, which workers use to emit puffs of what the agency described as “a nontoxic ammonia Purel-type solution.”

“We believe that while testing may have made it appear we were being proactive, testing is not a substitute for taking actual, immediate and continued action to keep inmates safe,” he said. “We believe that the available data nearly a year into the pandemic shows that our decision was the right one. Mississippi’s Covid-related inmate hospitalizations and deaths are among the lowest in prisons across the Southeast United States.”

But inmates say they fear for their lives.

In one facility, the George-Greene County/Regional Correctional Facility in Lucedale, three in four inmates have been infected. Elsewhere, cases have spread inside buildings that are in disrepair and that defy even rudimentary coronavirus prevention measures, according to state documents and inmates interviewed by The Times.

A lack of dependable running water has prevented handwashing and showers in some prisons, inmates said. In one prison, crowding has meant that as many as four inmates share cells designed for one person. And in another facility, dormitories are so packed that people say when they roll over in bed, their arms sometimes inadvertently strike a neighboring bunk.

At Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, nine inmates have died from the coronavirus, but the prison has tested only 195 of its 3,000 inmates. Of those tested, 102 were found to be infected, according to state data.

Paloma Wu, a lawyer at the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that is among several groups suing the state over its prison coronavirus protocols, said negligence had aggravated an already dire situation.

“They haven’t been able to keep people in prison safe,” she said.

The patchy health care the system provides to inmates was underscored last year by the abrupt departure of its health care provider, which accused the state of refusing to spend an adequate amount of money on inmate care.

During interviews, inmates who have avoided getting sick say they fear they will fall ill — and perhaps worse — in crowded, unsanitary settings.

“I don’t want to die in here. That’s why I fight so hard to get information to someone who can come and make it better for us inside this prison system,” said Mr. Waldon, who is serving a 10-year sentence for grand larceny. “I think about dying all the time inside the prison system.”

Mr. Waldon was transferred between Mississippi prisons about three months ago as the coronavirus ravaged the system, a policy that in other states has helped disperse the virus. He said thoughts of death had led to depression and anxiety.

“It causes you to worry,” he said. “It makes you think about the unexpected. It makes you wonder: ‘Are they ever going to do anything about the coronavirus? Are they going to test us? Are they going to help us?’”

Reporting was contributed by Izzy Colón, Brendon Derr, Danya Issawi, Ann Hinga Klein, Derek M. Norman, Libby Seline and Timothy Williams.