At least 36 states said that incarcerated people will be considered a “priority group” when administering the coronavirus vaccine, but 12 states have no plans at all so far to put inmates on a priority list, a policy brief by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) finds.
The federal Bureau of Prisons announced near the end of November that correctional staff would get at least some sort of priority status when it came to administering the vaccine, while those incarcerated would not.
The PPI analyzed drafted public vaccination plans from 48 states to see how each state was addressing incarcerated individuals and correctional staff when it came to the vaccine.
Even though 75 percent of analyzed states plan to address incarcerated people as a priority group, 25 percent—12 states—didn’t at all.
This illustrates the discrepancy in plans to administer the vaccine, which leaves one of the most vulnerable populations without hope of protection from the virus. It also raises questions about the potential for spreading infections to the wider community by released inmates in those states.
According to the PPI, the coronavirus rate is “four times higher in state and federal prisons than in the general population—and twice as deadly.”
The potential for contagion in corrections facilities is considered to represent a “public health threat,” because of the high density settings and the inability of incarcerated individuals to practice flawless hygiene. Experts argue this is one reason for putting the incarcerated on the priority lists for receiving the vaccine.
The high risk of the virus in correctional facilities is also due to the fact that “incarcerated people have higher rates of underlying conditions than the general population,” according to some experts. This means that if they do contract the virus, they are more likely to die or at least suffer harsher complications than others.
While data reflects that those in an incarceration setting are more at risk, labeling them as priority isn’t widely agreed on.
Some consider the incarceration population lower priority because of the fact that they’re incarcerated in the first place.
“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” said Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO).
Polis’ comment, as well as others who oppose the prioritization of inmates “violates the state’s duty to protect the health of people in its care, as well as to slow the spread of the virus in the places where it is poised to spread the fastest,” wrote Katie Rose Quandt, a senior editor at PPI and author of the policy brief.
In the states that do plan to prioritize incarcerated people, correctional staff are usually still prioritized ahead of them, although out of the 12 states who didn’t prioritize incarcerated people, eight of them also didn’t include correctional staff.
According to an op ed posted by NBC News.com, federal officials agree that staff should be high priority for a vaccine; those incarcerated still remain vulnerable.
“Allocating precious medical resources to people who are serving time may be anathema to much of the public, but elected officials must show some backbone by protecting this highly vulnerable population — for both moral and health reasons,” wrote Ashish Prashar and DeAnna Hoskins, authors of the op ed.
States such as Missouri have prioritized correctional staff ahead of those incarcerated because they’re likely the “entry point of the virus” as opposed to those incarcerated, who aren’t able to leave the facility.
The PPI contended that this claim lacks research support, and warned that just vaccinating staff won’t be “sufficient” in stopping the spread of the virus in correctional facilities.
Complicating the problem, states were often unclear in their description of “critical populations” and “essential workers,” leaving the PPI to make assumptions about some state’s intentions with the vaccine.
There was also a lack of distinction between prisons and jails. The lack of specificity could in turn mean that only those incarcerated in prisons receive the vaccine, said the PPI, noting “a history of locally-operated jails falling through the cracks in state policy.”
If states do neglect to offer the vaccine to those in local jails or detention centers they could miss out on a still extremely large and vulnerable population, according to the policy brief.
The brief also observed that although prisons and jails have released more of their population to reduce overcrowding, many haven’t reduced enough to the point of preventing the spread of the virus.
“Since March, at least 227,333 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 1,671 have died,” said the brief. “There have also been at least 56,496 cases and 105 deaths among prison staff.”
The high risk of cases, as well as recent outbreaks in correctional facilities across the country points to a need for prioritization, said the PPI.
Download the PPI policy brief here.
Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern