Advocating for prisoner vaccinations is a political issue, but it doesn’t have to be a partisan one.
As states begin to roll out their plans for COVID-19 vaccination, the limited number of doses have prompted tough public conversations about how to prioritize vulnerable populations. Most states agree that health care workers, nursing home residents, and people with high-risk comorbidities should be at the top of the list. But another vulnerable population has proved more controversial: incarcerated people.
Medical and public health experts, including the American Medical Association, agree that incarcerated people face tremendous danger from the virus, given that social distancing in America’s overcrowded prisons is impossible. Prisoners also face inadequate testing, a shortage of soap and masks, and substandard health care. As a result, the virus has already spread widely in prisons. The Marshall Project reported that, as of December 8, at least 249,883 people in American prisons had tested positive, a 10 percent increase over the past week, including 1,657 fatalities. Contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated has proven deadly, with rates of prison cases and deaths at 3.7 and two times national levels, respectively. As incarcerated writer Christopher Blackwell wrote for the Washington Post, “we are sitting ducks.”
The response of many facilities has been to go on lockdown, restricting important programs and keeping residents inside cells. Some prisons have even used solitary confinement as a method of quarantining. These practices have alarmed reform advocates and have made life all the more difficult for those inside prison walls. Byron Johnson, a Baylor University sociologist and leading scholar of faith-based correctional programs, told me that the past nine months have been “devastating” …