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The Covid-19 Pandemic's Disproportionate Effect on Minority Prisoners

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

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Lawrence Carter was a disabled Vietnam war veteran accused of drug possession. While awaiting trial, he was infected with COVID-19 in August of 2020 and succumbed to the virus before the trial was able to take place. Mr. Carter was 76 years old and suffered from severe diabetes, increasing his risk of contracting and suffering a fatal outcome from COVID-19. Moreover, his facility was not equipped to handle his pre-existing medical conditions, resulting in his death. Mr. Carter’s situation is just one of the many examples of detained or incarcerated individuals who experienced high infection rates and an alarming lack of medical care during the height of the pandemic.

Incarcerated individuals were 5.5 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and three times more likely to die from this infection compared to non-institutionalized society. Furthermore, minority inmates experienced a higher incidence rate compared to non-minority inmates, illustrating racial disparity even within the incarcerated population. This disproportionate impact on certain groups was a result of correctional institutions’ negligence and revealed underlying systemic inequality.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the United States, the disparity between privileged members of society, those who could afford health care and space to remain socially distant, and the remainder of the population became strikingly obvious. The lack of attention paid to minority populations, such as incarcerated individuals, was exemplified by national and local prisons’ higher infection and mortality rates largely due to substandard sanitary protocols. As Dr. Ross MacDonald, chief physician of New York’s Rikers Island, told TIME Magazine, “the right preventive measures don’t exist to stop the spread of this virus in [jail and prison facilities].” COVID-19’s high rate of transmission should have prompted an increased emphasis on cleanliness, similar to the way many other institutions increased their sanitizing frequency and hired professional sanitizing specialists. Yet, too often, cleaning was left to inmates. Coupled with the close quarters inmates reside in, this created a dangerous situation with potentially deadly consequences.

This sanitary deficiency was worsened by inmates’ inadequate access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical care. When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) did not have sufficient supplies to distribute to inmates and staff; thus, many went without masks or any other form of PPE. Moreover, the BOP did not implement mask mandates until many days (or months) after the non-institutionalized society had gone into lockdown. Even now, only a third of all states require incarcerated individuals to wear a face covering indoors. Furthermore, COVID-19 testing in correctional facilities was not nearly as accessible or prevalent as compared to their non-institutionalized counterparts. In fact, the BOP’s failure to implement proper testing procedures might indicate that the already high recorded percent positivity rate is actually an underestimation because had there been more testing, there would likely have been more positive test results.

Due to substandard testing and delayed diagnoses, medical care was insufficient. The COVID vaccine – a light at the end of the tunnel for many – was slow to be distributed to the incarcerated population in the US. Those predisposed to contracting the virus were given first priority for vaccination in the general population. However, inmates were not afforded the same consideration even though the nature of their unsanitary and crowded living conditions classifies inmates as high-risk individuals. The BOP’s vaccine rollout even caught the attention of Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker. The senators wrote a letter to the BOP specifically highlighting the slow vaccination rate and massive outbreak in a New Jersey Federal Prison. “[T]he vaccination program at FCI Fort Dix has been ongoing for three months, but today barely more than half of the incarcerated population has received all of the required vaccine doses,” they stated. Taken together, the densely packed and unsanitary environment, combined with a lack of PPE, minimal testing, slow vaccination, and inadequate medical care resulted in an infection rate of 5.5 times greater than in the general population. As a result, incarcerated individuals are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than someone who is not incarcerated.

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The conditions in local and federal correctional facilities across the United States are unsanitary, unsafe, and responsible for the numerous lives lost as result of the virus. However, the disproportionate effect on inmates also has broader social implications. “The incidence rate of cases and suspected cases for African Americans was…anywhere from 2 to 4 times higher than for white inmates,” stated Dr. Crystal Yang, a professor at Harvard Law School who researched the impact of Coronavirus on US prisons. Her research displayed racial disparity even within prison populations, which consist largely of minorities. The pandemic highlighted the difference in treatment that certain groups receive in the United States, compounding the underlying issue of racial inequality that has persisted for centuries.

During periods of hardship or stress, systematic weaknesses are often exposed. Incarcerated individuals were not treated justly compared to the general population, often receiving inadequate supplies or treatment. However, even within this minority population, racial divisions became evident. The United States prides itself on being a beacon of equality and human rights, but when put to the test, the incarceration systems evidently did not act according to this ideal. In the future, the BOP should ensure that medical treatment meets the standard of care for incarcerated individuals. The disparities brought to the surface should serve as grounds for improvement in order to prevent another disproportionately high mortality rate. An immediate solution may consist of separating inmates in crowded cells and diverting more resources to prisons. However, on a systematic level, local and federal correctional facilities need to consider why there was such a disparity in infection and mortality rates, even between inmates in the same correctional facilities.


Works cited

Carlisle, Madeleine, and Josiah Bates. “Covid-19 Has Devastated the U.S. Prison and Jail Population.” Time. Time, December 28, 2020.

Griesbach, Rebecca, and Libby Seline. “Granted Parole or Awaiting Trial, Inmates Died of Covid-19 behind Bars.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 6, 2021.

Initiative, Prison Policy. “Half of States Fail to Require Mask Use by Correctional Staff.” Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed February 13, 2022.

Initiative, Prison Policy. “New Data Gives a Detailed Picture of How Covid-19 Increased Death Rates in Florida Prisons.” Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed February 13, 2022.

Lemasters, K., McCauley, E., Nowotny, K. et al. COVID-19 cases and testing in 53 prison systems. Health Justice 8, 24 (2020).

“Menendez, Booker Lead Delegation Members in Calling on Bop to Prioritize Vaccinations at FCI Fort Dix amid Covid Outbreaks: U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey.” Home, April 22, 2021.

Nelson, Bryn, and David B. Kaminsky. “A Covid‐19 Crisis in US Jails and Prisons.” American Cancer Society Journals. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, August 3, 2020.

Saloner B, Parish K, Ward JA, DiLaura G, Dolovich S. COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons. JAMA. 2020;324(6):602–603. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12528

Turcotte, Maura, Rachel Sherman, Rebecca Griesbach, and Ann Hinga Klein. “The Real Toll from Prison Covid Cases May Be Higher than Reported.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 7, 2021.


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