Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the field of public health has sprinted a marathon to address the ongoing crisis — we have implemented mass vaccination plans, pushed back against misinformation campaigns, and taken action in the face of slashed budgets and outright assaults on our lives. But as a public health researcher and advocate, I believe there is a critical place where we have fallen short, and with dire consequences: connecting the dots between incarceration and health.

Jails and prisons — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers — have remained consistent sites of COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the pandemic. This is not surprising. Due to overcrowded living conditions and lack of adequate health care, carceral facilities have long failed to prevent, contain, and treat infectious diseases. Studies that predate the pandemic   show a high prevalence of scabies, lice, influenza, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and other public health hazards in jail settings. With a virus as contagious as COVID-19, we have seen especially catastrophic impacts on incarcerated people. ICE detention facilities have reported a COVID-19 case rate 13 times higher than that of the general U.S. population. Recent reporting from The Prison Policy Initiative reveals that “the COVID-19 death rate in prisons is almost three times higher than among the general U.S. population, even when adjusted for age and sex (as the prison population is disproportionately young and male).”

This is a devastating tragedy in its own right and, at the same time, it is important to emphasize that the public health crisis in carceral facilities has wide-reaching impacts. More cases inside prisons and jails means more outside of them, too. Another statistical analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that United States incarceration added about 566,800 cases — among people both inside and outside of carceral facilities — between May 1 and August 1, 2020 alone. That’s roughly 13 percent of all new U.S. cases for the same time period.

Read the full article about incarceration and public health by Amber Akemi Piatt at Grantmakers in Health.