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Amelia  Ahl headshot

The U.S. Prison System is Failing People and Communities Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

COVID-19 should push businesses and individuals alike to reflect, take accountability and repair the damage the U.S. prison system has wreaked nationwide.
By Amelia Ahl
U.S. Prison System

As 2021 gets underway and COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to skyrocket across the United States, recent data from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit media outlet covering criminal justice, shows that 1 in 5 people who are incarcerated in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic. This rate is more than four times higher than that of the general population. This is an opportune moment for businesses and individuals alike to reflect, take accountability, and work to repair the damage caused by the U.S. prison system.

The pandemic has unleashed a crisis across U.S. prisons

The Marshall Project has been tracking COVID-19 in state and federal prisons since March 2020 and reports that 330,000 incarcerated people tested positive for the illness and at least 2,020 have died. The findings show that positive COVID-19 cases in prisons rose steadily from the beginning of the pandemic and peaked at a rate of 25,897 cases in one week last month.

While these figures are shocking, they are also likely a gross underestimate of the actual numbers, as testing in prisons is limited and many cases likely go unreported.

The prison-industrial complex, described by Critical Resistance as the “overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems,” has contributed to the proliferation and overcrowding of private prisons across the U.S. since the 1980s. In recent decades the prison population has increased by 700 percent, resulting in growing profits for private prisons and their suppliers as well as extreme overcrowding.

The U.S. prison system has long been a hub for infectious diseases, though COVID-19 poses an elevated threat to inmates who are unable to physically distance themselves due to overcrowding. They also often lack access to personal protective equipment and other crucial supplies like soap and hand sanitizer.

While some incarcerated people have been released early across the country due to action taken at state and county levels, the 8 percent reduction of the prison population recorded in the first half of 2020 is attributed to fewer people being incarcerated rather than existing inmates being released. Due to concerns about the coronavirus, courts have been closed, fewer people have been admitted into prisons from county jails, and parole officers have sent fewer people to prison for low-level crimes.

The links between COVID-19 and more human rights abuses

Inmates who were not released have been subjected to a troubling new practice of placing people into solitary confinement within state and federal prisons in an attempt to achieve social distancing. Virtually nonexistent throughout the global north, solitary confinement is a common practice in U.S. prisons. But when used as a prolonged or indefinite form of punishment, it is considered a violation of human rights under international law.

The human rights concerns for people in prison extend beyond the increased use of solitary confinement and insufficient measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, permeating the very fabric of the U.S. through racist policies and practices.

Black people are five times more likely to get stopped by police without just cause and are also incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people in state prisons around the country. While current population data reflects that 32 percent of the U.S. population is Black and or Latinx, that demographic represents 56 percent of the prison population, indicating vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration based on race.

The rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths also paint a picture of extreme inequality. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black Americans are hospitalized for COVID-19 at a rate 3.7 times higher than that of white people; Latinx citizens are hospitalized at 4.1 times the rate, and the death rate for both groups is almost three times that of white Americans. 

The human story behind these numbers is one of the compounding effects of racist policies in the criminal justice and health systems, which continue to devastate millions of people around the country who suffer from prolonged separation from family members or are left to grieve the passing of loved ones in isolation.

Business is complicit in abuses within the U.S. prison system

Too little is being done to put an end to these racist practices, especially as the prison-industrial complex increasingly profits from inmates during the pandemic. For example, since prisons have gone on lockdown and banned all visitors to combat the coronavirus, phone calls are now the only way for inmates to be in touch with the outside world. At around $1 per minute, these calls are expensive and place an enormous financial strain on incarcerated people and their families, while delivering substantial profits to the two companies that control the market.

Beyond the private prison industry, the business world at large is also complicit in reinforcing these systems of inequality. While 2020 was a hallmark year for corporate activism in the face of climate change, police brutality, and racism, most companies have been remarkably silent when it comes to injustice in the U.S. prison system.

This silence is especially notable given that many people who are currently incarcerated and at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 are at an elevated risk due to the racist policies these brands were protesting in the first place.

As COVID-19 continues its spread, this is a reminder that now is not the time for silence, inaction, or apathy; it is the time for action in support of health and human rights. The well-being of our communities depends on it.

Image credit: Pixabay

Amelia  Ahl headshot

Amelia Ahl is an MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School, pursuing a degree in sustainable solutions. She has a background in humanitarian and international development, which fueled her interest in regenerative business models. Amelia's experience ranges from social business and impact investing to policy and the nonprofit sector. Her research and work is guided by social justice and antiracism. Amelia is a consultant for sustainable businesses and the co-founder of an accountability group for female and non-binary entrepreneurs.

Read more stories by Amelia Ahl