The COVID-19 pandemic is an urgent and unsettling magnifier of longstanding racial injustices in the United States. These injustices are laid bare most profoundly in the United States’ prisons and jails, where one out of every five people has had COVID-19 and where the rate of infection is four times as high as the general population. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine prisons and jails as separate from society. The rampant infection and profound suffering under COVID-19 in carceral facilities serves as a major source of transmission into communities at-large, particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.

This vicious cycle—largely unaddressed by criminal legal and other state apparatuses—continues unabated, leaving behind a social precedent that undercuts well-established epidemiological and public health research, basic human rights principles, and the imperatives racial justice and antiracism.

A number of advocates and experts stress that following structural changes are needed to address the above injustices. These structural changes include:

  • Community-Based Harm Reduction Strategies

    • De-militarize policing
    • Make de-escalation a standard element of police protocol
    • Partner police with social services and social workers
    • Shift budget from policing to violence prevention and medical services
  • Reorientation of State, Prosecutorial, and Carceral Positioning

    • Transfer power and resources to communities who are already providing social supports through initiatives like credible messenger programs and kinship reentry
    • Incorporation of those directly impacted by the carceral system into a robust social safety net
    • No pre-trial detention
    • No cash bail
    • End mandatory minimums
    • Create system of alternatives to incarceration
  • Community-Carceral Health Principles

    • Vaccine distribution accompanied by decarceration
    • De-siloing corrections from public health infrastructure, giving public health departments a larger role in accountability

With these injustices and needed solutions in mind, the call to action for those in the research and policy space is three-fold:

  1. To work in solidarity with and learn from the leadership of individuals who have direct lived experience with the ills of mass incarceration and COVID-19;
  2. To identify research tools and advocacy pathways, and venues for democratic engagement that can help dismantle mechanisms of racial and medical oppression which have persisted in the criminal legal system for too long.   
  3. To develop antiracist and ethical models of rapid response and collaboration that enable a wider community of stakeholders to meet the long- and short-term racial justice and public health challenges of today.

Please join us in this effort.

To meet these challenges, stakeholders from universities, advocacy organizations, organizing communities, and policy groups have formed the Justice, Health, and Democracy (JHD) Justice Network. The JHD Justice Network (or simply, Justice Network) is a collaborative coalition of leading scholars, advocates, practitioners, and activists working at the intersections of justice, race, and equity. Mirroring the diversity of expertise that individual network members bring to the collective, the Justice Network is convened across three diverse and high-impact anchoring institutions: the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, New America, and the Brown University School of Public Health. The initiative is a core component of the Justice Health Democracy (JHD) Impact Initiative.