March 19, 2021

How mass incarceration drives COVID-19’s racial disparities
Amid our country’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color has come to the fore.

Amid our country’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color has come to the fore. As we consider and try to correct the underlying injustices that lead to higher rates of illness and death in communities of color, we must acknowledge the role of mass incarceration and the outsized impact of the pandemic in prisons.

Disproportionate rates of incarceration: a key part of the story

According to the CDC, Black Americans have died from COVID-19 at about twice the rate of whites, while for Hispanics and Native Americans the rates are 2.3 and 2.4 times as high, respectively. The way our criminal justice system disproportionately imprisons Black Americans and other people of color is a key part of this story.

Recently compiled data on COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania state prisons obtained by Joshua Vaughn, a reporter for The Appeal, testifies to the disparate impact prison outbreaks have had on Black Pennsylvanians.

According to the data, just over half of the 64 people who died of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania state prisons in 2020 were Black, even though Black people make up only 12 percent of the population.

The over-incarceration of Black people in our state is largely responsible for this huge disparity, as they make up about 47 percent of people confined in state prisons.

As we’ve seen over and over again, the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily in crowded prison environments where it can be difficult, if not impossible, to follow social distancing guidelines, and where mitigation efforts have often been flawed or inadequate. By the end of 2020, The Marshall Project found that 1 in 5 people incarcerated in federal and state prisons had become infected with the coronavirus, four times the rate of the general population. Other studies have found that incarcerated people die from COVID-19 two to three times as often.

Fueling spread in communities of color

In prisons throughout the country, disproportionate rates of incarceration intersect with a heightened vulnerability to COVID-19, contributing to the pandemic’s unequal racial impact. But prisons may also be directly fueling the spread of the virus in communities where people of color live, says Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, co-founder of the COVID Prison Project and assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She points to a groundbreaking study that found that 1 out of every 6 cases of COVID-19 in the state of Illinois last spring could be traced to detainees cycling through Chicago’s Cook County Jail. The virus spread faster in communities that had more residents cycling through the jail, the study found. And about 75 percent of people incarcerated in the jail were Black.

“People of color have more exposure to the criminal justice system, which is just such an extreme setting of risk,” Brinkley-Rubsintein says. The implication, she explains, is “that exposure translates to community case rates.”

The ways in which prison outbreaks contribute to COVID’s disparities make stopping the spread behind bars not just an urgent public health issue, but a matter of racial justice.

We once again call on all state and county officials to:

  • Offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff as soon as they become available;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

Sky Blue Heart
If you learned something from this supporter update, pay it forward with a donation. Your support makes our critical work to promote transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania prisons and jails possible.