Shining a light on COVID inequities: A personal reflection


Recently published by the University of Michigan Press, Ohio Under COVID: Lessons from America’s Heartland in Crisis, tells the human story of the pandemic from a numerous walks of life. Two themes emerge again and again: how the pandemic revealed a deep tension between individual autonomy and the collective good, and how it exacerbated social inequalities in a state divided along social, economic, and political lines. Both of these themes are explored in a chapter authored by lab member Forrest Behne and University of Cincinnati bioethicist, Dr. Elizabeth Lanphier. 

The chapter, titled “Prisons, Pandemics, and Personal Responsibility,” offers research and reflections on the early days of COVID, and how the government response set a precedent that would be mimicked in other states. Throughout the essay, the authors weave first-person accounts from Forrest’s time spent wrongly incarcerated at Ohio’s London Correctional Institution. Marrying epidemiological analysis with a depiction of life inside a prison besieged by the virus offers the reader poignant insight into the crisis while highlighting the need for criminal-legal reform. 

To find out more about the data underpinning this essay, visit the COVID Prison Project website. The book is available for purchase through the University of Michigan Press. A digital version of the text is available through Open Access, including the essay “Prisons, Pandemics, and Personal Responsibility.” 

"The most visible COVID-related change was daily symptom monitoring. Every morning we woke to the halogen lights above our beds and a duty officer bellowing “temp check.” Row by row, we lined up to wait for staff to apply the pulse oximeter and read our temperature. For some of us this is the first time seeing health-care staff in months—or years—and we were grateful to talk with them. Those with chronic and untreated medical conditions would plead to the medics for help only to be told, “Hey, at least no one in your dorm has caught it yet.” One medical worker said to another, loud enough to be heard, “How come they all smell like wet dogs?” 

Lived experience can be a potent tool for researchers and advocates. By sharing details of Forrest’s time incarcerated during the pandemic, the authors highlight both the monotony and the terror of this period. Data collected by the COVID Prison Project and others offer context to how practical, logistical, and political constraints affected carceral operations. Combined, these sources ask the reader to consider the ethical imperative of criminal-legal reform and how these efforts must center changes to carceral health. 

"People started tearing the sleeves off white cotton T-shirts and wearing these as face coverings, but this was a potential conduct violation. Tearing the shirt was destruction of state property. Makeshift masks were “contraband.” Residents were stuck between risking their health or risking a disciplinary report that could be used to deny parole."

The essay culminates by urging policymakers and the public to critically analyze their views on incarceration and health. “The orthodoxy of corrections—that the individual bears singular responsibility for their situation—became the lens through which the pandemic was viewed in correctional settings. This approach fundamentally shaped Ohio’s management of COVID in its prisons and jails.” The pandemic showed that the world is more connected than ever and that population and individual health are inextricably linked. Despite this, carceral administrators and public health officials across the country failed to sufficiently protect those experiencing incarceration.