Melissa Horn was the first prisoner to die from COVID-19 in Virginia on April 14. She was a mother and struggled with substance abuse in rural Tazewell County, near the West Virginia border. Her drug problems resulted in shoplifting and probation violations, and her inability to pay fines often kept her behind bars. The press release announcing Horn’s death emphasized her criminal charges and pre-existing conditions.

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges across the United States, the amount of infections and deaths in correctional facilities nationwide continues to soar at alarming levels. Between May 29 and June 30, there was a 52 percent increase in positive COVID-19 cases and a 35 percent increase in COVID-19 related deaths among incarcerated individuals. While the number of COVID-19 related deaths amid prison staff grew by 30 percent, COVID-19 infections in this group increased by 40 percent.

By June 30, the Marshall Project reported that at least 52,649 incarcerated individuals and 11,180 correctional employees in the nation had tested positive for COVID-19. Approximately 615 prisoners and 43 staff members throughout the country have lost their lives to the deadly virus. 

Incarcerated individuals compose one of the most underrepresented and vulnerable populations in the United States. However, much of the focus on the COVID-19 crisis behind bars has been on men, leaving incarcerated women behind as the forgotten victims of COVID-19 in prisons. 

While much of the data published about COVID-19 in America’s correctional facilities has remained gender neutral, incarcerated women comprise a minor percentage of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the country. As of May 13, there were 13 documented deaths from COVID-19 among incarcerated women. The Marshall Project reported, nearly two weeks later, that 455 total prisoners had died from COVID-19. 

By June 27, male inmates made up a staggering 93.2 percent of the total U.S. prison population, while female inmates encompassed only 6.2 percent. Although women constitute a significantly small portion of the total prison population nationwide, the current pandemic is illuminating their longstanding problems that are often ignored by both our criminal justice system and our public health system. Furthermore, COVID-19 highlights the unique barriers faced by women in prison and exacerbates the disparities that put them at higher risk for contracting and dying from the disease.

The vast majority of incarcerated women in the United States come from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-income households, lacking access to quality health care prior to their arrest and imprisonment. Studies have shown that women in U.S. jails and prisons are increasingly reporting chronic health conditions, including asthma and hypertension. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these health risks can increase the likelihood of a severe course of COVID-19.

Over 60 percent of incarcerated women in the United States are mothers of children under 18, and they are commonly the sole caregivers. Publicly available data of pregnancies in prisons is limited, with the most recent data collected more than 15 years ago. In 2004, four percent of women in state prisons and three percent of women in federal prisons were pregnant upon admission. The CDC recently found that pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized and placed in intensive care.

Incarcerated women also show higher prevalence of interpersonal trauma and mental illness than their male counterparts. They are more likely to be victims of sexual violence, which can lead to substance use disorder and time in prison. More than half of the women currently imprisoned in the nation are serving sentences for minor property and drug offenses, and about a quarter of women behind bars have not been convicted of a crime. 

Releasing those who pose no immediate threat to public safety is critical to combating the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many innocent women are currently in prison, turning their time awaiting trial into a potential death sentence. Additionally, spending time in prison tends to worsen the situation for the majority of women convicted of drug-related offenses. It perpetuates a brutal cycle of poverty, illegal drug use, and imprisonment. Generally these crimes committed by women can be addressed by alternatives to incarceration.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population in the United States. Between 1980 and 2017, the number of women in U.S. correctional facilities increased by more than 750 percent. Although there are many more men who are currently incarcerated than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been double that of men since 1980. 

West Virginia experienced the largest growth in female incarceration in the nation between 1990 and 2016. By 2015, West Virginia had the highest female incarceration rate in the world. The state no longer imprisons women at this global and historic high, but it now does so at least ten times the rate of many other jurisdictions across the globe.

The steep rise in the population of incarcerated women in the United States deepens the critical public health risks of COVID-19 and poses significant challenges to reduce its spread. Still, as the number of female prisoners remains low on the surface, their experiences and needs continue to be overlooked in America’s criminal justice system and public health system. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the lesser known realities of incarceration. If we are serious about confronting this tragic crisis, we need to consider how gender impacts the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. Our country must take steps to address the preexisting issues facing incarcerated women.