Calendar photo caption: People incarcerated in the Cook County jail complex in Chicago in April 2020 called for help during the Covid-19 pandemic by hanging signs in the windows. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Overcrowded and unsanitary conditions made the 2.1 million people in U.S. jails and prisons exceedingly vulnerable to Covid-19. Unable to practice social distancing, forced to share bathrooms and day rooms with hundreds of people, and denied adequate access to soap, cleaning supplies, and masks, more than 525,000 incarcerated people had been infected by April 2021.
Many people in jails and prisons were at increased risk of severe Covid-19 infection due to their age, poor health, and lack of access to adequate medical care - and at least 2,700 incarcerated people died.
Across the country and in jails and prisons, where more than half of the incarcerated population are people of color, the coronavirus infected and killed African Americans at a higher rate than the population overall.
Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons disproportionately affected Black people. In Missouri, where a third of the prison population is Black, Black people accounted for 58% of positive tests by May 2021. In Vermont, where 9% of the prison population is Black, 18% of those who tested positive were Black. Sixty percent of Covid-19 deaths in New York's prison system were of Black people, who comprise about half of the incarcerated population.
Racial disparities in the legal system compounded the pandemic's disproportionate impact on communities of color. Researchers reported in June 2021 that people cycling through the Cook County Jail in March 2020 could be linked to 13% of all Covid cases in Chicago, and because 90% of the jail population is Black or Hispanic, this impact was much higher among Black and Hispanic communities.