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Why COVID-19 is Disproportionately Affecting the U.S. Incarcerated Population


January 13, 2021 ⋅ 12:30 P.M ⋅ Emily Kennedy ⋅ Editor: Guadalupe Sandoval⋅

You would think that as the nation with the largest incarcerated population we would see more news about how COVID-19 has affected this population but it has remained out of the spotlight. “While the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s total prisoners.”


At the beginning of the pandemic prisons were aware that the people residing within would be at a far higher risk. Many prisoners already had preexisting conditions and were in close proximity to each other, increasing infection rates due to their inability to practice social distancing. While some efforts were made to reduce the number of prisoners across the nation these efforts slowed or even halted in various states even though COVID-19 is still rampant across the country. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “Prisons still continue to be the largest number of infections in the U.S. and the COVID-19 dealth rate is three times higher than among the general U.S. population.”


Now as we have vaccines coming out in the coming months the question is who will get the vaccine first. The CDC has put out guidelines saying that only the employees at these correctional facilities will get the vaccine even though the incarcerated population is disproportionately at a higher risk because a majority of them are people of color and are at a higher risk of non communicable diseases like diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure on top of being a close quarters. This has become an even greater issue because there are a limited number of vaccines that can be administered in the first batch. There are few people that live in such close quarters and in a breeding zone for COVID-19. It has already been shown that there have been massive outbreaks, and as of November 17th, there have been at least 197,659 people who have tested positive and more than 1,400 deaths among prisoners. Prisons are not equipped to handle these massive outbreaks and should be considered in the emergency planning of each state and at a federal level. These numbers are only going to continue to spike as cases rise around the U.S.

There are really two ways that policy makers can go about this however either way prisons need to be one of the first places of priority for prevention of the spread of COVID-19. One option being inmates with less than a year left until parole, drug offenders, and non violent people at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 need to be released to reduce the potential of an outbreak in prisons.Or the other option is that all prisoners should be in the first priority of people to get the vaccine.

As a fantastic article from Health Affairs says, “We must remember the millions of incarcerated people who cannot plan for themselves yet remain inextricably tied to the core of our public health system.” This discussion surrounding COVID-19 and the incarcerated population in the U.S. is one of the utmost importance and perhaps a perfect time to rethink the structure of our incarceration system and to bring about systemic change.


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About the Author


Emily Kennedy is an undergraduate student at University of California - Los Angeles.

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