Covid-19 in the U.S. Prison System

Due to systemic racism, Black people have been disproportionately affected by incarceration and COVID-19 in the prison system. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2018, Black males accounted for 34% of the total male prison population and Black females accounted for 18% of the female population.

Systematic Racism Explained

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, systematic racism is defined as “policies and practices that exist throughout a whole society or organization, and that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.” Systemic racism assumes white superiority individually, ideologically and institutionally. The assumption of superiority or inferiority of certain individuals and races can be unconscious or conscious. People might not consider themselves racist or hold conscious implicit biases (see: Am I Racist?), but they still benefit from being white in a system that regularly privileges or punishes individuals solely for the color of their skin. To learn more about systematic racism, read our blog post: What is Structural Inequality?

COVID-19 Spread in Prison

Prisons are especially dangerous places during virus outbreaks, and they are a major source of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the COVID-19 death rate in prisons is three times higher than among the general U.S. population, even when adjusted for age and sex. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the strategy to slowing its spread in prisons was to reduce the number of people incarcerated. Most prisons and jails have failed to reduce their populations, further endangering the lives of incarcerated individuals living behind bars due to mass incarceration.

Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. According to Medium, the term “mass incarceration” refers to the unique way the U.S. has locked up a vast population in federal and state prisons, as well as local jails. The “War on Drugs” of the 1980’s and 1990’s is mainly to blame for the number of individuals in the U.S. prison system, as the judicial process is particularly tough on drug-code violations. The system of legal punishment is disproportionately hard on Black and Latino Americans.

The Bottom Line

According to the CDC, long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The factors that contribute to an increased risk of contracting Covid-19 include discrimination in the criminal justice system, healthcare access and utilization, occupation, educational, income, and wealth gaps, and housing. Due to the disproportionate incarceration of minority groups in America, there is inequity in individual health and an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19 in the U.S. prison system. To achieve health equity and slow the spread of COVID-19, barriers and systematic racism must be removed so that everyone has a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

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