COVID-19 has killed nearly 500 people in U.S. jails and prisons, and infected an estimated 43,967 inmates, according to the most recent figures. Worse still, there are almost certainly more who are sick with the virus. In fact, some state prison systems have infection rates around 50 percent, while a prison in Ohio has positive test rates of 80 percent.
These alarming rates have fueled rising concern about conditions inside facilities, and calls for the release of those who are most medically vulnerable. Without drastic changes in local, state, and federal government responses, the American Civil Liberties Union predicts, as many as 23,000 more deaths could occur in jails alone.
Any death from the coronavirus is tragic, but the plight of incarcerated women—one of the most vulnerable and fastest growing demographics in U.S. prisons and jails—has largely been hidden in this narrative of tragedy.
While women represent a small fraction of prison deaths from the disease, the increase in fatalities closely tracks with the demographic pattern. As of mid-May, at least 13 women incarcerees had died from coronavirus, and prison deaths tied to the coronavirus have risen by 73 percent.
The Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women is among the most poignant examples. Just south of Baton Rouge, the facility has more prisoners who have tested positive—165—than any other prison in the state. Two women have died, and according to The Marshall Project, nearly every prisoner in one dormitory has the virus.
According to three formerly incarcerated women, the women are held in dorms that have capacity for 80 women when the beds are two feet apart. If nothing is done to address these conditions, many more women will die.
The victims include women like Andrea Circle Bear, who passed away in a federal prison hospital April 28, just after giving birth to her son via caesarean section.
Women who end up incarcerated are—for the most part—from marginalized groups and often come from low-income households with a lack of access to quality health care. This makes them far more vulnerable to contracting the virus, and dying from it, as they often have underlying health conditions.
While some recent reforms have helped to reduce state prison populations, the number of incarcerated women has only risen—834 percent over the last 40 years. Making matter worse, women’s facilities are being particularly hit hard by the virus.
Indeed, in many cases, incarceration may be the wrong response.
Sometimes, personal circumstances—like domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse—can push women toward behavior that is criminalized in this country. Instead of jail/prison, these women should be sent to a rehabilitative or therapeutic facility.
However, fewer diversion programs are available for women, which means that women stay in the criminal justice system at a higher rate than men for the exact same crimes.
For example, there is a program in Wyoming for men that allows first-time offenders to participate in a six-month rehabilitative program outside of prison, but no such program exists for women.
With a lack of resources and programs available, women are often left behind in the criminal justice conversation. We must not forget that 62 percent of incarcerated women are mothers to minor children, and they are more likely to be the primary caretakers of their children than incarcerated men.
If they die in prison, their children will not only lose their mothers, but the majority will also lose their primary caretaker, altering their lives forever.
As infection rates continue to rise among America’s incarcerated populations, women are likely to again figure high in the death count, and that represents a special threat to the larger community—particularly from jails, which are transient places. In fact, infections in jails are predicted to cause as many as 76,000 more deaths in the community— numbers that do not include deaths or additional infection rates from state and federal prisons.
Legislators and governors need to focus on the at-risk population of women as they consider whether to release the most vulnerable incarcerated populations. Do they need to be confined to protect public safety?
If not, it is imperative that they be released to protect their lives and the lives of their families and others within the community.
NOTE: an earlier state by state breakdown of prison deaths and infections provided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can be accessed here
Krystin Roehl is a criminal justice policy expert working with the R Street Institute’s Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Program. Jesse Kelley is R Street’s Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Government Affairs Manager.