Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons and jails in the United States have been widespread. However, inmates have been neglected as policymakers determine the priority level for vaccinations. Inmates of US prisons and jails have largely been left behind as the country rolls out its first set of COVID-19 vaccines. Public health experts and advocates have been pushing for states and the federal government to make this vulnerable population a priority.
More than 1.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States. One tracking project of the coronavirus reported more than 270,000 cases and more than 1,700 deaths in the prison system since April 2020. Inmates are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as the general population, and 19 of the top 20 hot spots in the US are inside prisons, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Poor living conditions and overpopulation have added to the problem.
“They have been the source of so many cases because they are a confined population because they can’t do the social separation,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University, told DW. “They are a high-risk circumstance.”
Health experts warn that the consequences could be disastrous if nothing is done to help alleviate infections among the incarcerated. The American Medical Association recommends inmates and correctional workers “should be prioritized in receiving access” to the vaccines in the first phase of inoculations.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory committee in mid-December did not recommend prisoners be included in the initial phase. Under the Trump administration, the federal government largely left state governments on their own to determine how to distribute the vaccines.
A few states have added prisoners and staff to the first tier of candidates, but most have not designated them as a priority. In Colorado, health officials had recommended prisoners be part of the second tier of vaccine recipients. That prompted a backlash driven by state Republicans and conservative media. Colorado Governor Jared Polis changed course in early December, saying “there’s no way prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population.”
Civil rights advocates are concerned that as the numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to grow, more politicians will cave to public pressure because vaccines and resources are limited.
“Science should dictate this, not politics,” said Denise Maes, director of public policy at the ACLU of Colorado. “Science tells us that we do need to start vaccinations in the prisons.”