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Vulnerable People at Risk for Covid-19: The Jail and Prison Population

Prison corridor with many doors and bars

Coronavirus has had a noticeable impact on just about every corner of the world. When we think about populations that are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, a couple of demographics come to mind, including aging adults and people with pre-existing medical conditions. One group vulnerable to COVID-19 that we might overlook are inmates within the American prison system.

In this article, we’re going to be unpacking:

The impact of COVID-19 on the American prison system

How slow releases are worsening the problem of COVID-19 in prisons

What you can do to help the problem

—and more.

Let’s begin by elaborating on the impact of COVID-19 in prison.

How the American Prison System Has Been Affected by COVID-19

The reason that COVID-19 affects prisoners more seriously has to do with the fact that many inmates within the U.S. prison system are elderly, in poor health, or a combination of these two factors. Decades of long-term sentencing within the U.S. criminal justice system has led to the 18- to 24-year-old prison population being vastly overrun by older inmates.

Policies have drastically lengthened the sentences of people convicted of felonies and reduced their opportunities to receive parole. Between 2000-2016, the number of people incarcerated over the age of 55 tripled. Older jail and prison inmates who don’t have access to quality healthcare are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions like asthma or hypertension, raising the risk of life-threatening complications occurring during coronavirus.

As correctional facilities work to figure out how to circumnavigate the challenges that COVID-19 presents, over 1,200 jail residents and 70 jail staff members have died due to the pandemic, at the time of this article.

So, what are some specific reasons why COVID-19 is running rampant in correctional facilities?

Why Are Correctional Facilities Struggling to Contain COVID-19?

A corridor in a prison at night showing jail cells

Mass incarceration has led to prisons and jails that contain unhealthy environments that act as gasoline on the fire when it comes to the spread of coronavirus. What you get with mass incarceration is a case of overcrowding.

It's hard to adhere to social distancing if you're in an environment that's flooded with people. We've seen schools turn to remote learning, offices lean toward remote work, but we haven't seen the same types of changes occurring in our nation's prisons. Instead, we see prisons operating at 100% capacity.

If you want numbers to back up our claims, 40 out of 50 of the biggest cluster COVID-19 outbreaks in the country have been in prisons and jails. If there is a silver lining to this news, it's the fact that some local governments have been making efforts to reduce their jail populations. Prisons, on the other hand, have not.

We've all seen the restaurant industry suffer as a result of the pandemic. A big reason why many restaurants aren't able to function normally has to do with ventilation. Indoor dining areas can be seen as a breeding ground for COVID-19 if ventilation isn't operating exceptionally well. Many prisons in the United States contain poor ventilation and bed setups that place prisoners' inches apart. The results of poor ventilation and tight quarters leave much to be desired in terms of the positive COVID-19 test rates occurring.

How Does Race Tie in with the COVID-19 Pandemic and Incarceration?

We must note how deeply the Black community has been affected by COVID-19 in prisons and jails. Close to 1/3rd of all Black men will be imprisoned during their lifetime, and Black communities have dealt with more COVID-19 cases and deaths than the white population. Elderly and infirm inmates are the two groups most at risk for contracting and experiencing complications from COVID-19.

How Has COVID-19 Caused More Violence Within Correctional Facilities?