Context: Carceral institutions are among the largest clusters of COVID-19 in the United States. In response, activists and detainees have rallied around decarceration demands: the release of detainees and inmates to prevent exposure to COVID-19. This article theorizes the compounding racial vulnerability that has led to such a marked spread behind bars, mainly among race-class subjugated (RCS) communities.

Methods: The authors provide an in-depth account of COVID-19 in American correctional facilities and the mobilization to reduce contagions. They also use two survey experiments to describe public support for harm reduction and decarceration demands and to measure the effects of information about racial inequalities in prison and poor conditions inside migrant detention centers.

Findings: The authors found only one-third to one-half of respondents believe that response to COVID-19 in prisons and immigrant detention centers should be a high priority. They also found Americans are more supportive of harm reduction measures than decarceration efforts. Information about racial disparities increases support decarceration. They did not find any significant effect of information about poor conditions in migrant detention centers.

Conclusions: The conditions in carceral institutions during the pandemic—and public opinion about them—highlight the realities of compounding racialized vulnerability in the United States.

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