The COVID-19 pandemic is an urgent and unsettling magnifier of longstanding racial injustices in the United States. These injustices are laid bare most profoundly in the United States’ prisons and jails, where one out of every five people has had COVID-19 and where the rate of infection is four times as high as the general population. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine prisons and jails as separate from society. The rampant infection and profound suffering under COVID-19 in carceral facilities serves as a major source of transmission into communities at-large, particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.

This vicious cycle—largely unaddressed by criminal legal and other state apparatuses—continues unabated, leaving behind a social precedent that undercuts well-established epidemiological and public health research, basic human rights principles, and the imperatives racial justice and antiracism.

Addressing the Public Health Crisis of U.S. Carceral Facilities

The COVID-19 Vaccine: What You Should Know

(For Incarcerated Individuals)

A New Foundation for Justice, Safety, and Equity

 Key Principles


A number of advocates and experts stress that following structural changes are needed to address the above injustices. These structural changes include:

  • Community-Based Harm Reduction Strategies
    • De-militarize policing
    • Make de-escalation a standard element of police protocol
    • Shift budget from policing to community health and social services
  • Reorientation of State, Prosecutorial, and Carceral Positioning
    • Transfer power and resources to communities who are already providing social supports through initiatives like credible messenger programs and kinship reentry
    • Incorporation of those directly impacted by the carceral system into a robust social safety net
    • No pre-trial detention
    • No cash bail
    • End mandatory minimums
    • Create system of alternatives to incarceration
  • Community-Carceral Health Principles
    • Vaccine distribution accompanied by decarceration
    • De-siloing corrections from public health infrastructure, giving public health departments a larger role in accountability

With these injustices and needed solutions in mind, the call to action for those in the research and policy space is three-fold:

  1. To work in solidarity with and learn from the leadership of individuals who have direct lived experience with the ills of mass incarceration and COVID-19;

  2. To identify research tools and advocacy pathways, and venues for democratic engagement that can help dismantle mechanisms of racial and medical oppression which have persisted in the criminal legal system for too long.   

  3. To develop antiracist and ethical models of rapid response and collaboration that enable a wider community of stakeholders to meet the long- and short-term racial justice and public health challenges of today.

Please join us in this effort.



Danielle Allen
Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

David J. Knight
Co-Convener, Justice, Health, and Democracy (JHD) Justice Network
Lead, Working Group on Health, Racial Equity, and Incarceration

Lily Jacobs
Research Coordinator, Justice, Health, and Democracy (JHD) Justice Network

Benjamin A. Barsky
Research Affiliate, Justice, Health, and Democracy (JHD) Justice Network

To meet these challenges, stakeholders from universities, advocacy organizations, organizing communities, and policy groups have formed the Justice, Health, and Democracy (JHD) Justice Network. The JHD Justice Network (or simply, Justice Network) is a collaborative coalition of leading scholars, advocates, practitioners, and activists working at the intersections of justice, race, and equity. Mirroring the diversity of expertise that individual network members bring to the collective, the Justice Network is convened across three diverse and high-impact anchoring institutions: the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, the New America Foundation, and the Brown University School of Public Health. The initiative is a core component of the Justice Health Democracy (JHD) Rapid Response Impact Initiative.

Our Goal

In concert with many others, our goal is the inclusive transformation of how institutions think about and enact justice in the United States. Our current criminal legal system, which many refer to as the criminal justice system, does not deliver justice if we believe that justice is about protecting and sustaining the lives of people in our families and communities. Rather, what people call justice today ultimately results in alienation, dispossession, and unfreedom. These conditions have tragic long-run effects on individuals, their children, their families, and their communities.

We advocate for a different paradigm–a fundamental shift from the logics of separation and incapacitation and toward the principles of association and community self-determination.

What Is Our Approach

Our approach is multidisciplinary, equity-driven, and actionable.

It is characterized by cross-jurisdictional collaborations between scholars, practitioners, and organizers in “orient-do-learn-do” cycles. It is guided by key principles and ethics with the goal of making knowledge accessible and actionable for directly-impacted communities and policymakers in general, with the goal of utilizing research toward real-world impact in support of those with direct experience with the carceral system. 

Currently, the Network is working along two parallel tracks: one long-term and the other short term.

On the long-term track, the Network is:

  1. developing a set of principles that articulate an inclusive vision of justice, equity, and human flourishing; 
  2. supporting data infrastructure and use of evidence equity frameworks to better understand the justice landscape and guide research in that area; and 
  3. generating design principles to guide local decision-making among diverse stakeholders. 

The intersectional framework underlying these endeavors strives toward human flourishing by centering racial equity and dignity, identifying robust systems of accountability at the state and local levels, and weaving together the objectives of individual and collective healing and repair.

On the short-term track, the Working Group on Health, Racial Equity, and Incarceration (HREI) within the Network brings together individuals with lived experience, organizers, and researchers who believe in—and fight for—the dismantling of oppressive carceral systems and their negative health consequences.  The rapid response activities and products coming out of the HREI include the following: 

  1. Public health educational documents or FAQs for incarcerated people and loved ones of incarcerated people
  2. Public education video awareness campaigns
  3. Collaborations with racial justice community leaders and organizers on the use of data to support local community needs
  4. An integrated framework and policy brief for addressing COVID-19 and other underlying health concerns in carceral facilities