Context: Carceral institutions are among the largest clusters of COVID-19 in the United States. As outbreaks have spread throughout prisons and detention centers, detainees have organized collectively to demand life-saving measures. Chief among these demands has been the call for decarceration: the release of detainees and inmates to prevent exposure to COVID-19. This paper theorizes the compounding racial vulnerability that has led to such a marked spread behind bars, mainly among race-class subjugated communities.

Methods: We use journalistic sources and administrative data to provide an in-depth account of the spread of COVID-19 in American correctional facilities and of the mobilization to reduce contagions. We also use two survey experiments to describe public support for harm reduction and decarceration demands and measure the effects of information about (a) racial inequalities in prison, and (b) poor conditions inside migrant detention centers.

Findings: We find that 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. We also find that Americans are much more supportive of harm reduction measures like improved sanitation than of releasing people from prisons and detention centers. Information about racial disparities increases support for releasing more people from prison. We do not find any significant effect of information about poor conditions in migrant detention centers.

Conclusions: The conditions in prisons and migrant detention centers during the pandemic—and public opinion about them—highlight the realities of compounding racialized vulnerability in the United States.

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Supplementary data