By John Eason, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
Some may have you believe that Black folks are dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate because we lack personal responsibility, have faulty moral character, or cannot escape the so-called “culture of poverty”.
However, the COVID-19 crisis exposes a simple but powerful reality—racism does not take a day off—even during a pandemic. In fact, years of racial disparities in the criminal justice system and access to healthcare will prove more important in the battle to flatten the COVID-19 curve than life choices of the most disadvantaged individuals.
This map illustrates COVID-19 cases from March 1-April 5 across US counties suggesting that counties with prisons are hotspots for the outbreak. Given the disproportionate number of Black and Latinx corrections officers in these counties, prisons may unwittingly serve as vectors of the disease in communities of color.
Research shows that the prison is deeply immersed in American life, as over 60% of Americans know someone or have an incarcerated family member. This pattern is even more stark for African-Americans, as nearly 9 out of 10 know someone or have a family member in prison or jail.
This explains why it came as no surprise to many Black folks that Cook County Jail is a top hot spot for COVID-19.
Although once designed to help prevent outbreaks, prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers are now incubators for infectious disease as the number of infections inside these facilities continues to outpace the free world. While newly incarcerated people can bring COVID-19 into prisons, guards and other staff are the ones who come and go most often.
Given the acute, airborne nature of COVID-19, there is no way to effectively social distance inside facilities. In fact, early reporting of COVID-19 infections across prisons and jails show how guards suffer higher rates of infections than inmates.
What is not a widely known fact is that African-Americans are overrepresented in the front line correction staff. This means that Black workers in correctional facilities are possibly being infected at the highest rate of any population. So while some may express concern about prisoners being released as leading to increased infections in Black communities, Black corrections officers may unknowingly be culpable for this trend.
We see this phenomenon in racialized trends in employment with other essential workers. Frontline service from truck and delivery drivers, grocery store cashiers, public transportation operators, maintenance staffs, postal workers, and a host of other low-skilled professions are disproportionately occupied by people of color. Let us remember these professions were not often the first choice, but people settled into them because of the well-documented legacy of discrimination in educational attainment and the labor market. To be clear, every bus driver does not drive a bus because it was their childhood dream. Many faced discrimination in school and on the labor market and took the best job they could given the challenges they face. Because of this, many Black folks end up living in segregated, underserved neighborhoods after years of redlining and predatory lending. This thereby results in longer commute times to jobs that we must keep if we want health insurance during a pandemic.
So what can be done? Less racism would be great but we can start by remaking the narrative around the plight African-Americans in this current epidemic. To move beyond rhetoric will take a strong will. This crisis will certainly test our mettle to do simple things because they are right.
For starters, we need to make healthcare organizations more available to African-Americans in their neighborhoods. In analyzing COVID-19 deaths and infections across Chicago, we found that African-Americans living in neighborhoods with greater access to healthcare organizations (urgent cares, primary care doctors and facilitate, hospitals, clinics, etc.) have lower rates of COVID-19 and deaths from COVID-19. By placing HCOs in black neighborhoods we effectively reduce travel, reduce transmission, and flatten the curve.
The COVID-19 epidemic presents a series of policy choices where public health and public safety can be at odds. However, if we understand that health is foundational to public safety, we can take drastic measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the wake of this crisis, some states and counties have pivoted towards doing the right thing amongst calls to “let my people go” from prisons and jails. However, there are some governors, sheriffs, and other elected officials that have stood firm in their “tough on crime” commitment.
For those involved with the criminal justice system, flattening the COVID-19 curve should not only be essential in bail decisions, but also releasing prisoners with underlying medical conditions, and ending technical parole violations. Governors and other local leaders also need to end admissions to all prisons and jails based on technical violations until this wave of the pandemic passes. We need to step up testing for everyone leaving prisons to divert those reentering from communities already suffering from high rates of COVID-19. We need to provide immediate early release for inmates (starting with non-violent offenders) over 50 with medical conditions with high comorbidity (e.g. diabetes, cancer). Even more importantly, early release for anyone whose sentence is within 6 months of completion. Finally, given that families cannot visit and the recent spike in unemployment due to COVID-19 has disproportionately affected families of those incarcerated, there should be free or reduced fees for calls for everyone in jails and prison.
John M. Eason
Department of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison