Inmates at Neuse Correctional Institution, apparently unmasked and not socially distanced, walk outside behind fences in Goldsboro on May 15, 2020. The facility was the site of a major COVID-19 outbreak in the first months of the pandemic. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

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One in five people who have been in North Carolina’s prisons since March have tested positive for COVID-19, matching the national average for prison infections. One in four prison staff members have tested positive, according to data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety, which oversees state prisons. 

That’s compared with one out of 13 people testing positive for the virus statewide

Because inmates and prison staff are much more likely to be Black than North Carolina’s population as a whole, the outbreaks happening behind prison walls are disproportionately harming Black people and Black communities in North Carolina. 

What’s happening in North Carolina follows the national trend, according to Aaron Littman, deputy director of the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project at UCLA School of Law. 

“The incidence of this disease has been heavier on communities of color, and our practice of racially discriminatory mass incarceration worsens that,” Littman said. 

The factors that cause greater infection rates among Black communities create a cyclical process for infection, and prisons act as both incubator and distribution center for the disease, according to multiple experts in the law, public health and sociology. 

John Eason, founder and director of UW Justice Lab and sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies where prisons are built and who works at prisons. He was among the first to show a correlation between where prisons are located and the rapid spread of COVID-19, a conclusion that has since been supported by work from other researchers

More often than not, communities around prisons are mostly Black, Eason said, and those communities were among the first to get COVID-19. Essential workers, like correctional officers, have to go to work in person. 

Though census data shows that roughly 22% of people in North Carolina are Black, just over half of people in prison and half of correctional officers are Black. 

Eason’s research has shown correctional officers are often the vectors that bring COVID-19 inside prisons, where it spreads rapidly among the incarcerated population and exposes other prison staff to the virus, who then take it back out into their communities. 

Because a disproportionate number of people in prison and correctional officers are Black, because prisons are disproportionately built in Black communities and because Black people live in disproportionately segregated communities, prisons put Black people behind the walls and across the state at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. 

“This is compounded, and this is why all of this inequality is being laid bare,” Eason said. 

“COVID is just ravaging Black people because it shows the depth of the daily existence of being Black in this country, the depth of inequality that goes along with being Black in this country.”

Not making disparities worse

The limited data provided by DPS and the state Department of Health and Human Services shows prison policy and medical care are not making racial disparities for COVID-19 infection, serious illness or death any worse for the people who are already incarcerated.

But the data is incomplete. Not only does DHHS not differentiate between prison staff and inmates in its data, but the race is also not known for one out of every three correctional officers or incarcerated people who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

The data is more complete for COVID-19-related deaths in the prison system, and it shows people are dying roughly in proportion to the racial makeup of the prison population and staff. 

It is not a surprise that the medical outcomes for people in prison are similar across race, according to Taleed El-Sabawi, an assistant professor at Elon University Law School who specializes in health care management in correctional facilities. 

For years, studies have shown that mortality was not worse for Black people than white people in prisons, El-Sabawi said. Since the virus is indiscriminate in whom it infects and prisons provide the same health care to everyone behind bars, it is not surprising that the trend is holding true in the age of COVID-19. 

But the long-term effects of the disease are still unknown and could still reveal racially disparate outcomes, according to El-Sabawi. 

“We don’t really know what the true mortality rate of COVID is yet from complications,” El-Sabawi said. 

She pointed to studies showing that people who have been incarcerated have higher rates of underlying health conditions than the rest of the population, including asthma, diabetes, heart conditions and high blood pressure. 

“We’re going to see increases in mortality in years to come in prisons from heart conditions, for example,” El-Sabawi said. “For people who are released, that can mean, you know, lower life expectancy rates after release.” 

Aging, and dying, in prison

The social disparities in housing, education, job opportunities and racially targeted policing that drive up Black incarceration rates are born out of 400 years of United States history, according to Frank Baumgartner, professor of political science at UNC Chapel Hill. 

In 1994, the North Carolina legislature passed criminal justice reforms that extended prison sentences. As a consequence, North Carolina’s prison population is getting older, according to Baumgartner’s research

The older a person is, the greater the risk for serious illness and death due to COVID-19. 

Racial disparity is again present in COVID-19 deaths. The vast majority of deaths from COVID-19 in North Carolina’s prisons were people age 55 or older. Black people make up 48% of this elderly prison population, more than twice the proportion of Black people in the general population. 

While Black people in prison are not dying at higher rates than other groups, they are dying in prisons at much higher rates than white people compared with the state’s population as a whole. 

Not only did North Carolina create longer sentences in 1994, but the way the sentences have been applied is racially imbalanced. Baumgartner’s research and an analysis by Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, show that the longer a prison sentence, the more likely it is that it’s being served by a person of color. 

“I think it is really our responsibility and a test of our level of civilization to keep these people safe, even if they are being punished,” Baumgartner said. “They’re not supposed to be put in a situation where they get preventable diseases. So, I think that that’s the real moral question.”

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.