Criminalization of black and brown communities in the Midwest adds to public health crisis during COVID-19 pandemic

The first installment of this three-part series on the impact of the coronavirus in the Midwest describes how weak labor protections have put Midwestern food processing workers at risk for coronavirus. Here we describe how incarceration puts people in the Midwest at risk during the pandemic and what state and local policymakers can do to protect the health and safety of people and families impacted by incarceration.

During a public health crisis, we’re reminded that our communities are only really safe when everyone is safe. Across the nation—and throughout the Midwest—our communities include jails, prisons, and detention centers. And now, people who are incarcerated face an urgent problem: greater health risks from COVID-19. Overcrowding inhibits physical distancing and isolation of people who’ve contracted the virus, and inadequate medical care and supplies in these facilities prevents necessary testing, treatment, and sanitation. Decades of so-called “tough on crime” laws have overcrowded Midwestern jails and prisons and put the people who are incarcerated and the surrounding communities at risk.

State and local policymakers must do more to protect the health and safety of people impacted by incarceration and the workers coming in and out of these facilities as well. Proper medical care; prioritizing people for release from jails, prisons, and detention centers; eliminating unnecessary fees and fines; protecting people on parole and probation; and ensuring incarcerated people are able to communicate with their family and friends without creating additional economic hardship are all steps that should be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic and further highlight reforms necessary even when we are not facing a global health emergency.

What does incarceration in the Midwest look like?

All states throughout the Midwest have seen a dramatic increase in incarceration over the last 40 years. They have incarcerated people in jails, prisons, detention centers, and juvenile justice facilities at higher rates (652 people per every 100,000 people in the state on average across the Midwest) even when compared with wealthy democracies around the world. Racial disparities are especially stark for black people, who are overrepresented in jails and prisons in every Midwestern state. For example, of the 10 states with the highest black–white differential in incarceration in state prisons, five (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska) are in the Midwest and three of these (Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota) imprison black people at more than 10 times the rate of white people. Latino and indigenous people are at least two times as likely to be incarcerated in many Midwestern states, including Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These communities are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that lead to higher rates of death after contracting the virus, a risk factor that reflects and compounds durable patterns of segregation and discrimination.

What can be done to protect the health and safety of people impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Provide necessary medical care and supplies such as soap, hand sanitizer, and masks

Providing affordable, accessible, quality health care and medical and sanitizing supplies are essential to prioritize the health and well-being of people who are incarcerated. However, for decades health care for incarcerated people has been undermined by contracts with private companies and insufficient resources, who put profit over people. Medical care and personal protective equipment should be provided at no cost to incarcerated people. Likewise, staff, and visitors should have soap, sinks, hand sanitizer, and masks. For example, in Minnesota, the Department of Corrections is waiving co-pays for medical visits and taking additional measures to make soap available and frequent hand-washing possible.

Reduce admissions and the number of people currently in jails and prisons

The Prison Policy Initiative recommends reducing admissions into jails and state and federal prisons and also releasing people who are currently incarcerated. For example, at the end of March, Gov. Pritzker issued an executive order to prevent new admissions to Illinois state prisons. In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer issued an executive order allowing local officials to prioritize release for people who are elderly, have chronic health conditions or other serious medical issues, pregnant women, people nearing their release date, and people with drug or alcohol addictions or mental health issues that could be treated elsewhere. In Ohio, advocates have been calling for state officials to reduce prison populations, by at least 10,000, to bring the number of incarcerated people in the system closer to its design capacity of 38,500. At least partly in response to this advocacy, Gov. DeWine’s administration has taken steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated in state prisons by about 1,300 to just over 47,500, down from nearly 49,000 in March.

Release people being held in detention centers

Advocates such as the Detention Watch Network are also calling for the release of immigrants held in detention centers, eliminating check-ins with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and mandatory court appearances, and stopping local enforcement operations. ICE officials, as well as state and local elected officials, can all take steps to protect the health and safety of immigrants in detention centers. In addition to similar physical distancing challenges due to overcrowding in jails and prisons, detention centers have a well-documented history of limited access to health care and lack of basic hygiene that put people who are detained at even greater risk during the pandemic. There are nearly 30,000 people incarcerated in immigrant detention centers around the country, with close to 3,000 people incarcerated in Midwestern states. Some of the highest concentrations of people detained in the region are located in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. As of April 25, 2020, ICE confirmed 10 COVID-19 cases among people detained in Michigan and 47 cases among people detained in Ohio.

Prevent unnecessary pre-trial detention and economic hardship by waiving fees, fines, and court debt

Throughout the Midwest, pre-trial policies have driven an increase in incarceration as people are locked up without a conviction and await trial or deportation. This includes people who are incarcerated because they simply cannot afford to pay bail or other court-related fines and fees. The Fees and Fines Justice Center recommends waiving fees, fines, and court debt and not issuing warrants for unpaid fees and fines or for failing to appear in a related hearing. The Michigan executive order referenced above also allows local officials to prioritize releasing anyone incarcerated for failure to appear in court or failure to pay court-related fees and fines, as well as people incarcerated for a traffic violation. As another example, Nebraska’s Supreme Court suspended the execution of warrants for unpaid fees and fines between March 30 and June 30, 2020.

Protect the health and safety of people who are on parole and probation

Eliminating unnecessary in-person communications typically required for people on parole and probation, and reducing the number of people who are on parole and probation rolls, would also reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. In most Midwestern states, the number of people who are on parole and probation exceeds the number of people who are incarcerated. For example, while 78,000 people are incarcerated in jails, prisons, and detention centers in Ohio, more than three times as many are on probation and parole. In Indiana, 47,000 people are incarcerated while two times as many people are on probation and parole. People under this form of correctional control may be required to appear in court, take on-site drug tests, receive home visits, and pay regular fees despite already struggling to make ends meet. Fees are also often required for GPS/electronic monitoring which creates both additional economic hardship and health and safety issues by restricting travel for those who may need to seek medical treatment. Technical violations of parole and probation based on these and other requirements put people at risk for incarceration in the future. Policymakers can also suspend incarceration based on technical violations of probation that would have not have otherwise led to incarceration.

Ensure families can maintain communication with loved ones

Many jails, prisons, and detention centers are now required to prevent people from visiting their family and friends while physical distancing guidelines are in place. It is critical that families are able to maintain communication with their loved ones who are incarcerated without creating additional economic hardship in the form of expensive phone calls, video calls, and emails. For example, the Kansas Department of Corrections is providing two free 15-minute phone calls and three free 30-minute video calls per week until in-person visitation restrictions are lifted. The Iowa Department of Corrections is providing four free e-mails per week for each incarcerated person. After U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois called on federal prisons to take action, phone calls and video calls are now free in all federal prisons.

The economic, health, and social crises created by incarceration were well-documented long before the onset of the coronavirus. The solutions highlighted here also point to the need for long-term, permanent reforms for thriving healthy communities in the Midwest and around the country, not just in times of the extreme crisis.

The authors thank the Detention Watch Network, Fees and Fines Justice Center, and Prison Policy Initiative for their expertise and resources on the topics discussed here.