The COVID-19 pandemic has not only laid bare the structural inequality in American society; it has also made that inequality deadlier.

Poor people, Black communities, incarcerated individuals and others have suffered the most as the virus continues to spread across the United States. Given the heightened threat of COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities, and the specific health vulnerabilities of marginalized populations, the virus poses a severe threat to incarcerated minorities living behind bars.

Media has focused attention on the impacts on communities of color and women in prison, but incarcerated LGBTQ people should also be part of the discussion.

America’s correctional facilities struggle with overcrowded environments, sanitation problems, and limited protective measures, making it almost impossible to practice recommended hygiene and social distancing. As a result, they can rapidly accelerate disease transmission, impacting public health both inside and outside correctional facilities.

Jails and prisons encompass many of the nation’s top hotspots. As of July 28, The Marshall Project reported at least 78,526 prisoners and 17,476 correctional employees in the country had tested positive. Some 766 incarcerated individuals and 55 prison staff nationwide have died. 

Not much data exists on incarcerated LGBTQ people and COVID-19. But given their increased medical vulnerability and overrepresentation in these facilities, we may assume many are being exposed to the deadly virus.

As of 2017, an estimated 65 percent of LGBTQ adults in the U.S. had pre-existing conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. One in six gay and bisexual men are expected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes. Additional research shows 14 percent of transgender women and 3 percent of transgender men live with HIV.

Nearly 17 percent of LGBTQ adults lack health insurance coverage, compared with 12 percent of non-LGBTQ Americans. For those with access to care, discrimination remains a constant threat. A 2017 report found that nearly one in 10 gay and lesbian individuals reported a health care professional refusing to see them because of their sexual orientation. About three in 10 transgender people revealed providers would not see them due to their gender identity. About seven in 10 LGBTQ patients have experienced negative medical care. 

In 2017, West Virginia had the nation’s highest percentage of teenagers who identify as transgender. According to Fairness WV, one in five transgender people in the state are currently denied medical care. The LGBTQ community endures increased rates of health care and job discrimination, while simultaneously struggling with disturbing levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and food insecurity. In West Virginia, it remains legal in most places to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Publicly available data of incarcerated LGBTQ people is limited, with the most recent nationwide sample collected almost a decade ago.

The 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey found that LGBTQ people were incarcerated at rates more than three times that of the general population. LGBTQ individuals represented 9.3 percent of all men in prison, 6.2 percent of men in jail, 42.1 percent of women in prison, and 35.7 percent of women in jail. 

The incarceration rate is especially high among LGBTQ people of color and those who are low-income. Transgender people are also nearly 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population, and studies show they experience frequent harassment, profiling, and abuse by law enforcement officers. LGBTQ youth face higher rates of detention and incarceration, which may be driven by their even higher rates of homelessness. Additionally, LGBTQ people in prison often experience unfair and inhumane treatment, and they can struggle with a lack of safe and adequate medical care.

Minimal data is available about the LGBTQ prison population in West Virginia, but past lawsuits highlight the abusive and discriminatory treatment they have faced in state correctional institutions. 

More than 150,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. As the country passes this grim milestone, it also faces more than just a global health crisis. The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are highlighting the long-term inequities experienced by minority communities.

As coronavirus outbreaks in jails and prisons expose the lesser-known, and hidden, issues of incarceration and the American criminal justice system, we must re-commit ourselves to combatting the oppression LGBTQ people face both behind bars and in society.