Mass Incarceration & COVID-19


Faced with the looming coronavirus threat, governments around the globe have employed a number of strategies to curb the spread of COVID-19. As prisons have emerged as a hotbed for coronavirus, one of the strategies has included attempts to reduce prison populations through methods such as early release and reduced admissions.1 By their very nature, prisons pose a multifaceted challenge in the face of the uncontrolled spread of an airborne virus. Widespread issues such as overcrowding, lack of testing, and diminishing resources make it impossible for incarcerated individuals to adhere to international COVID-19 guidelines, including quarantine protocols, social distancing, and mask-wearing. With more than 10.35 million people incarcerated worldwide, wide variations in international governmental responses to COVID-19 in prisons and jails have led to a range of consequential outcomes.2 Global data paints a consistently bleak picture of the coronavirus crisis in prisons and jails around the world, drawing stark attention to the reality of mass incarceration as a dangerous public health crisis with vast repercussions beyond the current pandemic.

Brazil hosts the third-largest prison population in the world with over 750,000 incarcerated people, many of whom have yet to face their first trial.3 Official data from Brazil’s government is largely unsatisfactory; as of July, there were 66 officially reported COVID-19 related deaths in prisons, but it was estimated that only 3.2% of the incarcerated population in Brazil had been tested for COVID-19.3 Some academics have also warned that official government data is untrustworthy, casting doubt on the methods by which the data is being collected and pointing to a likely vast underestimation of COVID-19 impact in prisons.3 These factors reflect a culture of brazen denial at the highest levels of the Brazilian government, led by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismissed COVID-19 as nothing more than a “little flu.”4 This hands-off policy has contributed to Brazil having the second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world,4 and the situation in Brazil’s prisons has grown direr in response. Prisons are characterized as “porous institutions,” which means that not only are incarcerated Brazilians vulnerable to the coronavirus crisis occurring outside prison walls, but the unchecked spread of coronavirus within prisons also poses a threat to surrounding communities.3 Furthermore, lack of testing capacity and widespread distrust have sowed deep unrest among incarcerated people in Brazil, leading to riots and attempted jailbreaks which have served only to worsen the spread of COVID-19 in Brazilian prisons.3

Protesters in Philadelphia take to the streets to demand decarceration. (Flickr)

South Africa has a prison population of over 130,000 and a prison overcrowding rate of 14 percent, posing an obstacle to curbing the spread of coronavirus.5 South African president Cyril Rhamposa ordered the release of incarcerated people classified as “low-risk” in an effort to address overcrowding.5 However, the sporadic nature of these releases has left thousands of incarcerated people facing abysmal and unsanitary conditions without any avenue to protect themselves from contracting coronavirus. Several incarcerated South Africans have reported widespread shortages of essential supplies, including food and hygiene products like soap.5 Furthermore, they have reported the emotional toll of witnessing the deaths of other imprisoned people from coronavirus, some of whom are their cellmates or are housed on the same floor.5 Pervasive fear and anxiety coupled with feelings of isolation since the suspension of familial visits in September have only led to increased feelings of hopelessness as cases begin to rise again in South Africa. However, the South African government has largely cast these accounts from incarcerated people as overstated and misrepresentative of the COVID-19 situation in South African prisons and insists that it has taken adequate measures to address the spread of COVID-19.5

Home to the largest incarcerated population globally, the United States presents perhaps the most extreme case of nearly unchecked spread of COVID-19 among its imprisoned populace.6 90 out of 100 of the largest cluster spreading events in the United States have occurred in prisons and jails,7 with recent data indicating that there have been over 190,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 1,500 deaths in US prisons since the start of the pandemic.8 The data also indicates a disproportionate toll of the disease on the prison population, likely due to the high prevalence of underlying medical conditions and the increased transmission risks in densely confined prison conditions; the case rate in US prisons and jails is 5.5 times that of the general population and the death rate is over 2 times as high.6 The United States prison population also represents another vast inequality: African Americans are imprisoned at a rate almost four times as high as their white counterparts.9 With reported data demonstrating a disproportionate coronavirus disease burden in African American communities–Black Americans have an infection rate of 62 per 10,000 people compared to 23 per 10,000 among white Americans10–COVID-19 has uncovered a broader issue of deep health inequity among marginalized populations in the United States. Mass incarceration is a contributing factor to this vast inequality, reflecting the structural and institutional policies that influence the spread of coronavirus among marginalized groups worldwide.

In New Zealand, mass incarceration of indigenous Maori peoples has led to a disproportionate coronavirus disease burden among this marginalized population. 51% of New Zealand’s prison population is Maori, despite the fact that Maori peoples make up only 15% of the total New Zealand population.11 Though New Zealand as a whole has boasted extremely low relative rates of COVID-19 infection, Maori activists and advocates have urged a swift governmental response to their concerns about rates of coronavirus among imprisoned Maori peoples, especially among the growing number of incarcerated youth. They cite disproportionate levels of comorbidities and other underlying health issues among the incarcerated Maori population that pose a heightened risk for serious health consequences and even death caused by COVID-19 exposure.11 The dangerous conditions in many New Zealand prisons, including crowding and poor healthcare access, have led to a call for governmental compliance with several urgent demands, including immediate decarceration and reform of carceral policies unequally applied to indigenous people in New Zealand.1

Lack of access to critical medical care has exacerbated the devestation of COVID-19 in prisons. (Joe Pietto / Flickr)

The South Korean government’s handling of COVID-19 among its prison population may present potential lessons for other nations whose incarcerated populations are reeling from the disease. South Korean prisons have significantly increased their testing capacity with the installation of “walk through testing booths” and have embarked on a concerted effort to distribute masks across the entire prison population.7 They have followed a strict set of guidelines, including the required quarantine of each person who tests positive for coronavirus or is newly admitted to prison.7 Additionally, masks are mandated to be worn at all times, and gatherings in common areas are greatly restricted.7 Though the ability of South Korean prisons to follow these guidelines is likely due to its relatively small prison population–a little over 50,000 incarcerated South Koreans as of June 2020–it is clear that nations around the world can adapt some of these strategies to address the immediate crisis of coronavirus spread in prisons and jails.12

The disproportionate effects of coronavirus amongst prison populations worldwide reflect the larger global issue of public health and incarceration. Though the decarceration efforts employed by several governments worldwide play an important role in reducing the spread of coronavirus among prison populations, temporary reductions to prison populations are only short-term solutions. Beyond the acute consequences of the current pandemic, global governments must seek long-term solutions to the public health risks posed by mass incarceration. Incarceration is a “major social determinant of health,” with consequences that extend beyond the incarcerated individual to affect their families and communities.6 Furthermore, incarceration rates in many countries reflect the systemic discrimination of vulnerable populations, further contributing to their marginalization. Public health practitioners and organizations, including the American Public Health Association, have urged for the complete abolition of carceral institutions as we know them.11 They have called upon governments to create new institutions that will centralize restorative justice and public health to address the injustices perpetuated by the current justice system.6 As the pandemic continues to devastate nations across the globe, it is clear that there must be an international reckoning with the public health consequences of mass incarceration.

Amma Otchere is a sophomore in Davenport majoring in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. She can be contacted at



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  2. Walmsley, R. (2016). World Prison Population List: Eleventh Edition. World Prison Brief and Institute for Crime & Justice Poly Research. Retrieved from
  3. de Oliveira Andrade, R. (2020). Covid-19: Prisons exposed in Brazil’s Crisis. British Medical Journal, 370, m2884.
  4. Tharoor, I. (2020). Brazil’s Bolsonaro popular as ever, no matter his handling of the coronavirus. Washington Post. Retrieved from
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  6. Macmadu, A., Berk, J., Kaplowitz, E., Mercedes, M., Rich, J.D., & Brinkley-Rubinstein, L. (2020). COVID-19 and mass incarceration: a call for urgent action. Lancet, 5(11), E571-E572.
  7. Gale, J., Lee, H., & Hull, D. (2020). As COVID-19 roars through U.S. jails, South Korea may provide template. The Japan Times. Retrieved from
  8. New York Times Editorial Board. (2020). America Is Letting the Coronavirus Rage Through Prisons. New York Times. Retrieved from
  9. Anderson, K.M., Olson, S. (Eds.). (2019). Mass Incarceration as a Public Health Issue. The Effects of Incarceration and Reentry on Community Health and Well-Being: Proceedings of a Workshop. National Academies Press. Retrieved from
  10. Soucheray, S. (2020). US blacks 3 times more likely than whites to get COVID-19. University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Retrieved from
  11. King, P.T., Cormack, D., & Keenan, R. (2020). COVID-19 and the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples. Journal of Indigenous Social Development, 9(3), 141-157.
  12. Republic of South Korea. (2020, June 30). World Prison Brief. Retrieved from


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