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Covid-19 Exposes Peril of Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration in the U.S. has long been a concern, but COVID-19 re-exposed the reality of our damaged and unjust institutions. Specifically, as the pandemic endures, its consequences have manifested through demonstrating the very real racial disparities regarding COVID-19 risk factors.

The Numbers

Frequently, incarcerated individuals are elderly, in poor health, or both. This puts them at an increased risk for illness and death. Furthermore, research has continually found a significant link between incarceration and mortality, finding that incarceration has a direct correlation with higher mortality rates.

With the heightened risk for contracting the coronavirus among elderly and those with preexisting conditions, it’s unsurprising that incarcerated individuals are also at a higher risk. They are five times more likely than the general public to contract coronavirus. In addition, the inmate death rate due to the virus is significantly higher than that of the general population. In the U.S, the five largest COVID-19 outbreaks are linked to correctional facilities. To put this into context, approximately 1,200 prison residents and 70 staff members in the country have died from the virus. Furthermore, these deaths continue increasing, but the number is likely underreported due to limited testing.

Incarceration Conditions

As mentioned above, older people and those with preexisting conditions are more at risk than the general population. However, incarcerated people are in the most dangerous position. That is, inadequate facility condition impede the spreading of the virus. Confined conditions, overcrowded facilities, high occupant turnover, and resource shortage all contribute to the inmate’s higher likelihood of exposure. To top it off, research shows that incarceration is significantly correlated with depression and poor mental health, which in turn, is inherently linked to mortality.


The link between incarceration rate and COVID-19 is right before our eyes: the USA has both the highest number of cases and the largest incarceration rate. Even more pressing is the racial discrepancies surrounding incarceration. The Sentencing Project found that Black Americans are incarcerated approximately five times more than whites. In certain states, this disproportion is even larger. Moreover, in 12 states in particular, Black residents comprise more than half the prison populations.

The Cause? Not Biological!

The root of this lies in the systematic racism that has long plagued the U.S. That is, the same systematic racism which has brought on racial disparities across virtually every societal institution.

The nation’s incarceration rate has shrunk significantly – since 2006, the imprisonment rate of Black Americans has decreased by 34%. Still, the research above holds to be true: Black Americans continue to be far more at risk of incarceration than other groups.

Considering the indubitable link between mass incarceration and COVID-19 risk factors, it’s evident that jails and prisons are in a position where it’s crucial to implement much needed, and long needed restorative changes.

Featured Image from Jimmy Chan on Pexels.

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