COVID-19 seems to be spreading rapidly in Oklahoma’s prisons.

That’s dangerous for inmates, prison employees and everyone else, too.

A female prisoner at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft and a male prisoner at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington have died after being treated for COVID-19. The state has been coy about the details of their deaths and has refused to identify them.

Recently, state officials said 721 Eddie Warrior inmates — a huge portion of the women at the prison — had tested positive for COVID-19. Three prisoners were hospitalized and 718 were in isolation. Sixteen staff members had tested positive.

Two other state prisons — Harp and Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma City — also have been identified as COVID-19 hot spots.

At last report, 1,568 inmates had tested positive across the state’s public and private prisons.

Even if you lack empathy for felons, the situation should concern you. Razor wire and metal bars don’t stop a pandemic.

More than 50 prison employees have tested positive. Those are people who go home at night and into the community. They have spouses, parents, grandparents and neighbors — all of whom could become the next person infected.

Oklahoma underfunds and overfills its prisons. The recent news that the state’s prison population has dropped 15% in the past year is welcome evidence that the state’s smart-on-crime reforms are starting to move things in the right direction, but the system still doesn’t have enough money, staff or appropriate space to protect against the spread of disease properly.

Inmates at most Oklahoma prisons are kept in military-style bunks, where they have been largely confined for months because of the pandemic. Would you feel safe in that setting if the inmate in the next bunk had a persistent cough?

Frankly, the state has been lucky on this account for months. Now, its luck seems to be running out.

Oklahoma has a moral and legal responsibility to keep prisoners healthy, which means keeping them safe from infectious diseases.

Beyond that, keeping prisoners free of coronavirus is in the public’s selfish best interest. The state must get control of COVID-19 behind bars, and it must do so quickly.

— Tulsa World

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