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COVID-19 outbreak underscores need for prison reform | READER COMMENTARY

Hartford, Ct. - More than 50 cars effectively shut down Prospect Avenue in Hartford after stopping or slowly processing for an hour in front of the Connecticut governor's residence to chant and display signs demanding the release of Connecticut prisoners to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com
Hartford, Ct. - More than 50 cars effectively shut down Prospect Avenue in Hartford after stopping or slowly processing for an hour in front of the Connecticut governor's residence to chant and display signs demanding the release of Connecticut prisoners to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com(Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

As a student of Public Health and Biology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a lifelong resident of Howard County, I seek to join the chorus of voices advocating for prison reform in light of the COVID-19 outbreak (“Maryland surpasses 100 coronavirus-related deaths; state looks to lease ice rink as makeshift morgue,” April 7). Organizers gathered in front of the Howard County Detention Center last Sunday, spotlighting the health vulnerabilities of the inmate population given their concentrated, oft under-resourced environment. However, these calls for intervention are readily applicable to Baltimore City too, and in communities across the nation.

The U.S. maintains the highest incarceration rate in the world with individuals cycling through our jail cells an estimated 10.6 million times per year. Furthermore, these carceral politics disproportionately burden communities of color given that African Americans represent 13% of U.S. residents yet comprise 40% of the inmate population. Thus, our country confronts the COVID-19 epidemic with a significant sub-population — comprised largely of American minorities — facing greater health risks, as they remain confined to facilities where social distancing may be impractical and sanitizers deemed contraband.

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The recent demonstrations in Howard County revolve around health equality. But more, they underscore the pitfalls of mass incarceration at large — its once latent social impacts have materialized in the midst of COVID-19, threatening inmate populations en masse along with proximal health systems and neighborhoods. In the case of Baltimore City, with an incarceration rate three times the national average and preexisting health disparities, the outbreak is expected to disproportionately impact communities of color.

We must continue to protest (albeit from our cars) today to set the stage for discourse on prison reform in the future. Divorcing ourselves from the idea of mass incarceration is, indeed, a preventive health measure and a public health initiative.

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Charles A. Brodine, Catonsville

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