Every day we learn a little more about how the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen more heavily on black Americans, as researchers examine unequal death rates and discuss how policy decisions are shaping the virus’s disparate toll.
Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice and immigration.
09. 11. 2020
A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons
08. 22. 2020
COVID-19’s Toll on People of Color Is Worse Than We Knew
08. 19. 2020
How Prisons in Each State Are Restricting Visits Due to Coronavirus
But when it comes to prisons—which have emerged as catalysts for the virus’ spread—we are mostly flying blind. This month, The Marshall Project asked prison officials from all 50 states and the federal government for the races of people in prisons tested for, diagnosed with or killed by COVID-19. Forty-three prison agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, could not or would not provide this information. “We are simply not organizing data in that manner currently,” said a spokesperson in New Hampshire. One in Kansas wrote in an email, "We do not have plans to release any additional demographics other than their rough age (over the age of 50, 60, etc. ) and gender. ” Nine agencies did not respond at all to repeated requests. Only Vermont provided all of the data we asked for. Michigan gave us some, while six states—Delaware, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia—gave us a little. We asked several epidemiologists to react to these limited glimpses. Monik Jiménez, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, called the failure to capture this data “another form of structural racism. ” Without such breakdowns, she explained, officials are unable to plan or to find “culturally relevant interventions” such as Spanish-language education on social distancing. They also can’t respond to higher rates of pre-existing health conditions among black prisoners, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. It is impossible to know if some of these states are failing to track the data, or simply refusing to make it public. Officials in a few states told our reporters they would need to file public records requests, although a Texas official said the request would likely be denied. New Jersey refused our request, while New York told us to wait until August for a response. But the limited data available suggest that while black people are more likely to contract COVID-19, as well as die from the virus, outside prisons, they may be even more likely to do so behind bars. Consider Michigan, one of the only states that has tested every single prisoner for COVID-19. Black residents comprise just 14 percent of the state’s overall population, but roughly half of the state’s prisoners. (Michigan does not keep up-to-date statistics about race in its prison population, but in 2018 put this figure at 53 percent. ) When COVID-19 swept several of the state’s prisons, it hit black prisoners even worse than black residents outside prison: By Thursday, 48 percent of prisoners who had died were black, compared with 40 percent of people who died in the state overall. “There is a bottlenecking happening,” said Barun Mathema, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. “People of color are being incarcerated at far higher rates than their counterparts, while neighborhoods that are economically or politically disenfranchised will also have an accumulation” of health factors that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.