Given the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the health and wellbeing of this population during the COVID pandemic warrants discussion. It is estimated that nearly 2.3 million individuals in the United States are currently incarcerated. For a discussion on the state of health and healthcare in correctional facilities prior to COVID, please refer to the supplemental reading.
At least 25,000 incarcerated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19, along with more than 7,000 correctional facility staff. At one point during the pandemic, an Ohio state prison was the largest known source of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with at least 1,937 confirmed cases (73% of the population in that prison).
Correctional facilities are a particularly dangerous site for viral spread. First, social distancing is difficult to implement in forced confinement. Second, given the predilection of COVID-19 for older adults with pre-existing conditions, the fact that nearly 20% of incarcerated individuals are over the age of 50, and more than a third have pre-existing health conditions puts them in a vulnerable position for serious illness from COVID-19. Reports also show that, in some prisons, the response to provide medical care for incarcerated individuals with COVID-19 symptoms is slow. In Kansas, the outcry to receive medical attention resulted in an uprising within a correctional facility. In addition to the direct health effects of COVID, incarcerated individuals face additional health risks from isolation as a result of loss of privileges and visitation rights.
Several human rights organizations and initiatives have pleaded with the federal government to take immediate action to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. For example, the Prison Policy Initiative has released a five point list of immediate actions, which include the following:
1. Releasing incarcerated individuals from jails and prisons (an initiative now in action in several states)
2. Reducing admissions to correctional facilities
3. Reducing check-ins, such as parole visits
4. Eliminating co-pays for medical care
5. Providing telephone and video calls at a lower cost
While U.S. Attorney General William Barr has taken some initiatives to address the spread of COVID-19 in federal correctional facilities, such as ordering the use of home confinement and early release, many biases plague the current system that determines which individuals qualify for these initiatives. This is an area of much debate during the pandemic, and we recommend you visit the Prison Policy Initiative's COVID-19 Resources page for further exploration of this issue.