COVID-19 and Incarceration: The Effects of a Pandemic on an Unjust System

COVID Racism Study
10 min readDec 13, 2020

Started on March 16, 2020, the COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity was established out of a concern for the lack of documentation on and attention to health inequities (due to racism, class, gender, and sexuality) in the COVID-19 pandemic.

We talked with Titilayo Rasaki, Policy Associate at the Essie Justice Group, to gain insight into their new Lives on the Line report and the great work that Essie Justice and Color of Change are doing to keep incarcerated people safe and ensure that all people are being treated with dignity and respect during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Reality of Prisons, Jails, and Detention Centers

“It is important for us as a society to transform the way we think about what is “normal” and what is okay to do to human beings. Every single person on this Earth is worthy of respect and dignity, simply because they live and breathe.”

-Titilayo Rasaki, Policy Associate at Essie Justice Group

Prisons, jails, and detention centers are often viewed as essential to upholding law and order; integral to maintaining a just society. But, what if that wasn’t the case.

The reality is that these “cages” were not created to keep people safe, but to keep people under control, functioning in tandem with a larger system of structural oppression intent on preserving white supremacy.

In recent years, due to high profile instances of police brutality, the United States justice system has been described as broken. But, as many have pointed out, it is not broken. A look at history shows us that the system is working exactly the way it was designed.

That is why Essie Justice Group, in partnership with Color of Change, created the Lives on the Line survey for people with incarcerated loved ones. Both organizations understood how prisons, jails, and detention centers operate in inhumane ways that are often hidden from the general public and that the COVID-19 pandemic would only make these situations more deadly. After the pandemic began, many people with incarcerated loved ones began to worry that the lives of their loved ones were literally being put on the line because the government refused to adequately address the realities of incarceration and COVID-19.

The Lives on the Line report was created to amplify the voice of people with incarcerated loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic, hold prisons, jails, and detention centers accountable for putting their incarcerated loved ones’ lives at risk, and push for life-saving actions. This report, with all of its heartbreaking facts, is meant to educate and inform advocates so that we can all understand the reality of incarceration in the U.S. during a pandemic.

Before COVID-19

Q: What kind of organizational work was Essie Justice Group doing BEFORE COVID-19?

Essie Justice Group is primarily composed of women whose lives have been impacted by having incarcerated loved ones. To center the story, we asked Titilayo how she got involved in this line of work. Titilayo described the motivation for her activism by saying that she believed “We need to have a world without cages, a world where there is no framework for a person to completely have their life upended because of incarceration.”

The women involved with Essie Justice Group are greatly impacted by their loved ones’ struggles. For these women, this crisis was something they were dealing with long before the spread of COVID-19. Their stories and experiences show that this humanitarian and public health disaster will continue until prisons are abolished and replaced with measures that contribute to building and supporting our communities.

Essie Justice Group predominantly focuses on helping women with incarcerated loved ones because this allows them to take an intersectional black feminist view that truly deals with the race, gender, and class imbalances that continue to perpetuate these unjust realities. Additionally, the reality is that women, particularly black women, are disproportionately affected by incarceration due to the women’s incarceration rate having grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades and the fact that one in four women, and one in two Black women, has an incarcerated family member.

Here are just a few of the ways that Essie Justice group has advocated for women with incarcerated loved ones throughout the pre-trial process:

#EndMoneyBail Campaign

The money bail system in the U.S. is financially devastating and in worst-case scenarios, deadly. It holds people in prison for thousands of dollars when they haven’t yet been found guilty of a crime. The national bail averages range from $10,000 to $50,000 but can be thousands of dollars more. These unaffordable costs exploit families with incarcerated loved ones while the prison industry continues to profit. For those incarcerated pre-trial, they stay in jail, lose jobs, lose custody of their children, face trauma and abuse, simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Essie Justice Group has long advocated to end money bail by helping families bail out loved ones, and by pushing for statewide legislation for bail reform.

Healing to Advocacy Program

Essie Justice Group knows that women with incarcerated loved ones face extraordinary financial and emotional stress. Additionally, the stigma of incarceration means that many of these women face isolation and a lack of support that can result in health problems. With this knowledge, Essie Justice created their Healing to Advocacy Program to support cohorts of women in a way that advocates for self, family, and community. This inclusion allows the women to feel empowered as they heal and find ways to advocate for and demand change.

These Essie Justice programs are just a few of the ways that the group has organized to deal with the realities of incarceration. With a criminal justice system full of injustice and discrimination against people of color, their actions and mission are essential to the movement for racial justice and equity.

Here are just a few facts about the unjust carceral system in the United States:

  • The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with approximately 2.3 million people behind bars across the country
  • Historically, Black people have disproportionately been the targets of carceral practices and policies
  • Black Americans make up 40% of the incarcerated population, despite representing only 13% of U.S. residents
  • Structural racism and racialized social control are both the cause and the function of mass incarceration in the U.S

These facts, and more like them, can be found in the Lives On The Line report.

After COVID-19

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the problems inherent to mass incarceration?

In short, COVID-19 has created more challenges for women with incarcerated loved ones because they have more worries, fears, and anxieties over the conditions inside of these institutions, in addition to the underlying concerns over the pandemic itself. Attempts to curb the spread of the disease have limited visitations and created even more isolation for those incarcerated as well as their loved ones. However, it has also advanced the movement forward by providing a catalyst for policy changes and reform.

For instance, the threat of death from the pandemic has spurred some state governments to introduce temporary policy changes like the temporary end of cash bail, which reduced or suspended bail for some people with the intention of releasing prisoners with minor offenses for their safety. Legal accommodations, such as this one, although not perfect (as there were many caveats and exceptions that left most people incarcerated) demonstrate the possibilities and potential for governments to do more to protect the lives of the incarcerated. Additionally, the pandemic has shed light on many racial disparities both within and outside the prison structure in ways that have been impossible to ignore. This new attention to and disgust with the current situation, from the general public, has allowed for a larger platform for community mobilization and change.

But, the nature of this pandemic has also made the situation worse by making prisons, jails, and detention centers even more deadly than they had been before. Knowing that COVID-19 would amplify the problems faced in incarceration, the Essie Justice Group sent out a national survey, to people with incarcerated loved ones, in order to gather the information that they feared would get swept under the rug in the resulting COVID-19 chaos. These responses materialized in the Lives on The Line report which provides evidence of the health crisis currently happening behind bars.

According to the report:

  • Many incarcerated people are vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, with a reported 52% having some underlying medical condition that the CDC has identified as “high risk” for severe illness or complications due to COVID-19
  • Abhorrent conditions in prisons have led to the rapid spread of COVID-19 because most of the incarcerated are NOT given access to basic necessities such as soap, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, or surface cleaners
  • A reported 30% of incarcerated loved ones did not have access to medical care
  • Many incarcerated people have been deprived of due process during COVID-19, further prolonging their incarceration and exposure to the virus.
  • 62% of those surveyed said that their incarcerated loved ones were scared of losing their lives

As a result of these dire situations, many of the women impacted by incarceration knew they had to do something to help protect the lives of their loved ones. This desperate need for change along with the recent high profile instances of state-sanctioned violence against people of color led to a materialization of the Breathe Act.

The Breathe Act is a visionary, omnibus bill whose goal is to divest taxpayer dollars from incarceration and brutal and discriminatory policing, and to instead invest in a new vision of public safety that protects minorities and allows us to invest in our communities for genuine safety and health. The Act is a groundbreaking movement, which Titilayo describes as, “A love letter to Black people that would allow us to breathe easily and freely…to live and sleep without worry of unjust policing.”

What can you do to help make a difference?

When faced with the reality of the situation many of us wanted to know what we could do to help. Here are some concrete actions that advocates can take.

  1. Learn more about the needs and demands of people with incarcerated loved ones by reading the Lives on the Line Report.

They demand prison, jail, and detention center closures because of their unsafe and inhumane conditions.

They demand the safe return of their loved ones with access to essential services and financial resources.

They demand that ALL possible measures be taken to ensure the health and well-being of their loved ones.

They demand access to their loved ones, including communication and health updates.

They demand that their loved ones’ incarceration not be extended due to COVID-19.

They demand access to healing and wellness.

These demands, though not exhaustive, provide insight into the reality of dealing with incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic and can be used to guide policy discussions.

2. Press for new legislation.

Public policies are made by our federal, state, and local governments. We have the power to demand policy change and urge our legislators to create and support legislation that helps dismantle unjust systems. This power makes it vital that we follow and support the policies we believe in.

Read the Breathe Act and learn about the legislation it advocates for.

Reach out to your local legislators and encourage them to support policies that promote social justice and prioritize the needs of their constituents, especially the most marginalized groups.

3. Submit a video story to the Lives on the Line project

The project is continuing to collect stories to spread awareness about the experiences of people locked behind bars and their loved ones. If you have a loved one who is incarcerated during this pandemic, please consider sharing your story.

4. Consider connecting with us on social media

This is one way you can stay informed about upcoming events to attend and initiatives to support.

Essie Justice Group: @essie4justice

Color of Change: @ColorOfChange

COVID Racism Study: @COVIDracism

Moving Forward

The detrimental effects of COVID-19 are long from over. As cases spike and new outbreaks occur across the country it can be easy to feel helpless, but some good has come out of COVID-19 in that it has helped speed up the work that needs to be done within the U.S. system of incarceration. All that said, it is important for us to have HOPE. We have to continue to believe that despite all that has happened there is still the possibility of a better future.

If we start to and continue to invest in people, we have the opportunity to create a world in which many of these generational hardships and inequalities disappear.

Everything can change if we continue to demand justice, and that all people be treated with dignity and given basic human rights.

Not today, not tomorrow, but perhaps one-day people will walk into prison museums and wonder why we ever held onto such corrupt institutions. Just like slave castles and ships across the coast of Africa, they will become relics of past injustice that we have learned from and vowed never to repeat.

The COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity is a partnership between the UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Department of Urban Public Health. We document racism, inequity, and injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic through our COVID Racism Study. Support our work by following us on Twitter and Facebook today.



COVID Racism Study

The @COVIDRacism Study documents racism, inequity & injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by UCLA’s @RacialHealthEq & @CDrewU.