Some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. have occurred inside of the country’s prisons and jails. People who are incarcerated are four times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die as the rest of the population.
It is nearly impossible for most people in prison to abide by public health recommendations to limit the spread of COVID-19. They live in close proximity to one another in poorly ventilated facilities, interact with staffers who may unintentionally bring the virus in from outside, and are often denied access to masks, soap and cleaning supplies.
Public health experts are therefore urging states to prioritize getting vaccines to the incarcerated. There is a clear humanitarian reason to provide protection to people who are prevented from taking basic precautions to protect themselves.
Vaccinating those who are incarcerated makes everyone else safer, too. Because staff enter and exit prisons and jails daily, outbreaks in those facilities will almost certainly spread into the surrounding communities. Jails are even higher-risk because people are brought in from outside after they are arrested and are transferred between facilities for court dates. Last summer, for example, a study found that 16% of all coronavirus cases in Illinois spread from a Chicago jail.
But states are largely ignoring the widespread consensus among public health experts that people who are incarcerated should be among the first to get vaccinated. Only a handful of states have reported already administering the COVID-19 vaccine to people in prisons, according to the COVID Prison Project.
In some states, elected officials are deliberately excluding prisoners from vaccine eligibility, even as the life-saving shots are being provided to similarly at-risk populations. The reasons appear purely political.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) broke with experts in his state who have recommended providing the vaccine to people who are incarcerated ahead of the general public. “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners … before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” Polis told reporters in December. (Most people in jail have not been convicted of a crime, and many people who are not incarcerated have committed crimes.)
In New York, residents and staff in nursing homes and “other congregate care facilities” and corrections officers are eligible to receive a vaccine in the state’s initial phases, 1a and 1b. But the state’s guidance includes no mention of the tens of thousands of people it imprisons in high-risk situations.
More than 4,200 people in the New York state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 29 of them have died. Because people of color are imprisoned at a disproportionately high rate, they are also disproportionately endangered by COVID-19 outbreaks in prison and jail. Eighty-four percent of people in New York City jails — where coronavirus case numbers are climbing — identify as Black or Hispanic.
Excluding incarcerated New Yorkers from early stages of the vaccine rollout “is racism, cynically and cruelly disregarding the lives of the Black and Latinx people who comprise the incarcerated population,” Mary Lynne Werlwas of the Legal Aid Society wrote in prepared testimony before New York City Council last week. “It is a perverse idea of ‘public safety’ to force a group of people to sleep, breathe and eat in the same room as strangers, every day and night during a pandemic, yet deny them access to the vaccines,” she continued.
In Massachusetts, one of the few states that has vaccinated people in prison, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) defended the decision as common sense. “From our point of view, congregate facilities are congregate facilities,” Baker said earlier this month. “We need to make sure that for the people who work there and the people who live there — because of the possibility of outbreak and the heightened risk of close quarters — that should be a place where we focus early.”
Making the vaccine available to those who are incarcerated is just the first step, experts warn. Although many incarcerated people are desperate to receive a vaccine, some are skeptical of the treatment. Health care in prison is notoriously bad, and mismanagement of the pandemic has given prisoners little reason to trust officials who encourage them to take a vaccine. Moreover, Black people, who are disproportionately incarcerated, have also been subjected to government-backed medical experimentation.
In some facilities, the only source of information about the vaccine is a poster on the wall. People who have questions about the vaccine may not have access to a medical professional with whom to talk through their concerns.
“Prisoners have a general distrust of prison authority — to include some prison medical and mental health staff,” Dennis Salerno, who is incarcerated in a state prison in Ohio, wrote in an email. “No one in here is an immunologist or virologist, but this all seemed Brand New. Some guys didn’t want to be Guinea Pigs for an ‘experiment,’ and others didn’t know what such a new formulation would do inside their bodies.”