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For Immediate Release

Press Release

New Report: Only 7% of People With Incarcerated Loved Ones Say Their Loved One Had Access to Soap, Other Basic Necessities to Stop Spread of COVID-19

Lives on the Line report highlights impact of pandemic on incarcerated people and women with incarcerated loved ones

Incarcerated people are vulnerable to severe illness due to COVID 19, and the pandemic is spreading rapidly in prisons and jails because of lack of health care and adequate access to basic necessities, such as soap and disinfectant, a new report released today by Essie Justice Group and Color of Change finds.

The Lives on the Line: Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones and the Impact of COVID-19 Behind Bars ( report calls attention to the distinct and acute harm caused to women, and particularly Black women, by the converging forces of COVID-19 and incarceration. The pandemic has only aggravated the financial hardship, increased childcare responsibilities, isolation, and physical and psychological stresses faced by women and people with incarcerated loved ones. 

“When COVID-19 hit, we knew that the dual crises of the pandemic and mass incarceration would fall heavily on women caretakers and disproportionately on Black women,” said Gina Clayton-Johnson, founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group. “That is because 1 in 2 Black women today have a loved one behind bars. This report makes that impact clear and condemns the failure of government actors to intervene in the increasingly dangerous conditions for Black and Brown families hardest hit by mass criminalization.” 

The report sheds light on the impact of the public health crisis on people inside prisons, jails and detention centers as well as on their loved ones. The report is based on a survey conducted from May 5 to June 7 which received 709 responses with more than 90% women writing from 45 states across the country.

“These survey results show incarcerated people and their loved ones are dealing with multiple pandemics at once, racism, mass incarceration and COVID-19 and it’s affecting their mental health,” said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color Of Change. “Most prisons and jails have cancelled in-person visits and increased restrictions on how often and for how long people can talk to their loved ones by phone, leading to increased feelings of anxiety and isolation. That’s why, in addition to demanding the release of incarcerated people, we’re calling on the Senate to pass the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act and lower the cost for families to stay connected with incarcerated loved ones.” 

Among the survey’s key findings: 

  • 62% of respondents said their loved ones behind bars are scared they will lose their lives to COVID 19. 
  • 52% of survey respondents reported that their incarcerated loved one has at least one underlying medical condition that the Center for Disease Control has identified as “high-risk” for severe illness or complications should they contract COVID-19.
  • One third of respondents reported that their incarcerated loved ones did not have access to medical care; only 16% said the facility where their loved one is practiced any social distancing while only a staggering 7% believed that their loved one had adequate access to basic necessities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as soap.
  • Incarcerated people are being deprived of their due process due to COVID, with 33% reporting that their loved one’s attorney meetings had been canceled and 11% reporting that their loved one’s release date had been delayed due to COVID-19.
  • 92% said their loved ones had a home to go to if released from prison to quarantine, showing that women with incarcerated loved ones and their families are able to welcome home incarcerated people if they are released.

“As state actors and carceral facilities callously abdicate their responsibility to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 behind bars and release incarcerated people, it is Black women with incarcerated loved ones who have stepped up,” said Rena Karefa-Johnson, director of campaigns and advocacy at Essie Justice Group. “Black women with incarcerated loved ones are the unseen, uncompensated care-workers on the front lines in the fight against the virus behind bars, powerfully advocating for their loved ones and organizing to provide them with essentials like masks, soap and even food.”

The report is just a snapshot of the experience of incarcerated people and women with incarcerated loved ones during COVID-19 and conditions have only gotten worse since the survey closed in early June. For example, as of July 2020, more than 2,240 of the people incarcerated at the San Quentin State Prison in California have tested positive for COVID-19 and 25 have died from the virus as of Aug. 19. 

“The California Department of Corrections has a way of criminalizing families; of treating us like we did something wrong for loving an incarcerated person, as if incarcerated people don't need love,” said Mia Shells, Essie Justice Group Member. “That is why we're demanding the safe return of our loved ones.” 

The report calls on decision makers to bring incarcerated people home and respond to the unique experiences that women with incarcerated loved ones have during this global pandemic. The full list of report demands includes: 

  • The closure of prisons, jails and detention centers.
  • Safe return of incarcerated people, with adequate financial and logistical support for newly released people and for their loved one welcoming them home. 
  • All possible measures taken to protect the health of lives and incarcerated people. 
  • Increased access to incarcerated loved ones, including free phone calls and video visits and daily communications and updates on their health and wellbeing.
  • Ensure that delays in court closures and programs do not extend loved ones’ incarceration.

The full report can be found here:


Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America.

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