Where do prisoners fit in the line for vaccines?
States debate the ethics of giving inmates COVID-19 immunizations before others
Michelle Bailey, 48, was an inmate at Plane State Jail in Dayton, Texas, when the coronavirus pandemic hit. She wasn’t nervous initially. “We’re a locked-up population,” she remembered thinking. “We’re good, unless the guards bring it in to us.”
As time passed, the inmates watched the news on TV and heard of the county’s rising case count from the guards. “We were only getting pieces and parts of the story,” Bailey said. “The fear took on a life of its own.” All classes, chapel meetings, and activities stopped inside the jail. When the guards suspected an inmate had COVID-19, they locked down the person’s unit.
In prisons, jails, and detention centers across the country, the average rate of coronavirus infections is four times higher than outside, and the mortality rate for inmates is twice as high as that of the general population, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Congregate living, limited opportunities for hygiene and social distancing, and lack of protective supplies all speed the virus’ spread behind bars. As of Jan. 8, about 329,000 prisoners had gotten sick with COVID-19, and 2,020 had died, according to the Marshall Project. For those reasons, many states are prioritizing the vaccination of prisoners, but not all law-abiding citizens agree with the decision.
In October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, recommending a three-phase rollout. The CDC listed correctional facilities as a “critical population” but let states decide which groups to prioritize in each phase. Eight states listed prisoners and 15 states included prison guards in phase one of their plans. The first phases of two other states’ plans had people in congregate living situations, implying they would include prisoners, and North Carolina said inmates could fall into phase one or two, depending on their health and age. Twenty-two states put prisoners in phase two, specifically or by implication.
George Brauchler, a district attorney for four Colorado counties just southwest of Denver, expressed shock and horror that prisoners could receive the vaccine before his elderly father and other seniors. In a column in The Denver Post, he said the state vaccine plan “elevates imprisoned pedophiles and career criminals above grandparents and adults with lung and heart disease.” Many social media users agreed with Brauchler. On Dec. 1, a reporter asked Gov. Jared Polis to respond to the op-ed, and Polis said, “There’s no way [the vaccine is] going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime. That’s obvious.” A week later, a revised plan for Colorado appeared, not listing prisoners in any phase.
Tommy Moore directs Jumpstart, a South Carolina prison ministry. He said the high-risk prison environment means inmates should receive priority vaccination and it would be wrong to “extend their punishment” by letting inmates suffer in dangerous conditions. “I think Jesus holds us accountable for taking care of those in prison,” Moore said, pointing to Matthew 25.
Scott Larson is president of Straight Ahead Ministries, another prison ministry and a runner-up in WORLD’s 2010 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion. He agreed a prisoner’s sentence does not include “being involuntarily put at a higher health risk.”
“For Christians it is also a matter of justice,” Larson said. “Hebrews 13:3 says we are to ‘remember those in prison as though we are in prison.’”
Vaccinating prisoners can also help the broader community. Prisons and jails act as incubators for the virus and continue its circulation in surrounding area through visitors, prison guards, people being arrested, and others being released. A June study in journal Health Affairs traced 16 percent of early COVID-19 cases in Chicago to one local jail. The researchers found that “jail-community cycling was a significant predictor of cases … accounting for 55 percent of the variance in case rates across ZIP codes in Chicago and 37 percent of the variance in all of Illinois.”
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