People For the American Way

Coronavirus’s Disproportionate Impact on Incarcerated People

News and Analysis
Coronavirus’s Disproportionate Impact on Incarcerated People
Photo: CDCR

During this unprecedented emergency, People for the American Way has continued to work to safeguard vulnerable communities. We are pushing our lawmakers for solutions to address these inequities, and to help our members stay aware and up-to-date, we are sharing emerging news and data on the blog every week to highlight how our vulnerable communities are suffering and offer resources on how to get involved in our work to protect them. Read our previous post here.

Today, we’re covering the impact on people who are incarcerated and the challenges they are facing amid this global health crisis.

Over the past two months, the coronavirus has laid bare the consequences of decades of systemic oppression and discrimination in the U.S. People of color, low-income Americans and other vulnerable communities who already bear the brunt of social and economic inequality are again being disproportionately affected by this crisis.

Emerging reports and data indicate that incarcerated people are also disproportionately at risk of COVID-19 infection: At one Ohio prison, 73 percent of incarcerated people tested positive. At another, in Indiana, that figure is as high as 92 percent. The same is true at larger facilities like Chicago’s Cook County Jail and New York’s Rikers Island jail complex. Rates of infection there are among the highest in the country. Across the board, local, state and federal prisons have become outbreak zones.

These conditions have further jeopardized incarcerated people’s health and safety. Too often, prisoners are forced to endure overcrowded, unsanitary and inhumane living conditions. They deserve to retain their human rights, but too often, they must endure humiliating and dehumanizing treatment, are forced to sleep on the floor or go without food, water, soap (and hand sanitizer they make but don’t get to use), showers, basic medical care and more. Overcrowding renders social distancing impossible. Such conditions have compounded the spread of a deadly virus for which there is no cure.

Extreme health disparities in incarcerated communities further endanger the risk they face during this pandemic. Hepatitis C, HIV, tuberculosis, and other chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes are all more prevalent in correctional facilities, and further exacerbate the risk of infection. Race, ethnicity and other social factors also play a role: Because Black Americans and other people of color and low-income people (among other groups) are disproportionately represented in the prison system, these groups are also more likely to contract the virus. The same is true for incarcerated seniors: their age and likelihood to suffer from health conditions could cause serious complications from COVID-19.

Protecting Americans from this virus and its devastating impact includes protecting people in prison. And right now, we must speak up to advocate for their human rights and their safety. That means fighting for their dignity, their access to proper health and medical care and their access to basic hygiene. It means calling on state officials to take swift, deliberate action to as many incarcerated people as legally feasible and calling on federal judges to support that release.

And finally, it means recognizing and fighting to end the unmistakable biases in our criminal justice system and the mass incarceration it perpetuates. The incarcerated population in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent since 1980, which has had a devastating social and economic impact on communities of color. Amid this pandemic, the impact of our country’s failure to end mass incarceration is clear as infection rates in prisons continue to grow. A new study forecasts that as many as 200,000 incarcerated people could die from COVID-19 unless we take immediate action to reduce the prison population.

Now, we have a chance – and a duty –to prevent such an outcome. And as we collectively move through this crisis, let us all recommit to our principles and values as we consider how the conditions either created or revealed by this virus can inform building a future that works for all of us.


coronavirus, coronavirus impact, criminal justice, disparate impact, health equity, incarceration, prisons