“If the biggest hotspots for [coronavirus] are prisons, doesn’t it make sense to inoculate everyone from the guards to the prisoners?”
Justice reform advocate Ashish Prashar spoke at a webinar on December 4, highlighting the dilemma incarcerated people and the prison system face in light of vaccine rollouts.
“All of the guards, all of the healthcare workers, all of the individuals that go in and out of prison are spreading it in society,” Prashsar said as reported by CNBC News. “Wouldn’t you start at the hot spots and stop that?”
According to a study conducted by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, incarcerated individuals in America are nearly four times more likely to contract COVID-19 than non-incarcerated people. They’re also twice as likely to die.
The CDC recommended guidelines for vaccine rollout that prioritizes frontline healthcare workers for vaccinations, followed by residents of nursing home facilities, and those who have underlying health conditions that may cause complications if the person becomes infected.
New York University bioethics professor Arthur Caplan said in an interview, “If [a person is] at risk and they’re in conditions that don’t allow them to isolate, they should get vaccinated. I see no reason to distinguish.”
Maryland did this in its vaccine rollout, including incarcerated individuals in the “Phase 1b” in which “people at significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness,” will be vaccinated.
American prisons face issues of overcrowding, and some have even been under federal investigation for unsafe and unsanitary conditions before the pandemic started.
With a disproportionate number of Black people incarcerated or in contact with the criminal justice system in the US, the issue of bringing vaccines to prisons also takes on racial, social, and historical contexts.
Families of incarcerated individuals are hoping state and federal officials will reconsider vaccination plans and include them. Some, however, are not a fan of people in prisons getting the vaccine first.
Colorado had originally included incarcerated people in the second phase of vaccine distribution, treating them like other groups living in group housing like shelters and dorms, but the original plan sparked outrage.
“The people who murdered her son would get it before she would,” Denver protester George Brauchler told PBS, worried that the two men convicted of killing Colorado state Sen. Rhonda Fields’ son would be given priority in getting vaccinated.
The state’s Governor Jared Polis updated the plan to focus on an individual’s risk and age instead of where they live, following the criticism.
“Whether you’re in prison or not, if you’re 67 years old or at risk, wherever you are, you’ll have access to the vaccine when 67-year-olds have access to the vaccine,” the governor said.
Nevertheless, some states are following similar plans to Maryland in prioritizing prisons specifically, including California, North Carolina, Delaware, Utah, Nebraska, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Montana.
Michigan will follow a plan like Colorado and give access to the vaccine based on health risks and age, regardless of incarceration status.
Advocates remain diligent in their work to raise awareness about the need for vaccination rollouts to include prisons, pointing to the devastation the pandemic has already brought inside of prisons and neighboring communities.
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