The start of vaccine rollout across the country has brought hope, but also questions about which populations should receive priority. The CDC recommends prioritizing healthcare and other essential workers, residents of long-term care facilities, people 75 and older, those with chronic conditions and incarcerated populations. The last of those recommendations continues to draw scrutiny, including recently from Governor Jared Polis of Colorado. Despite being known for campaigning on criminal justice reform, he recently said “There’s no way [the COVID-19 vaccine] is going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime”.
Throughout the pandemic, prisons and jails have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 outbreaks. To date, more than 1 in 5 people in U.S. prisons or jails have contracted COVID-19 and over 2,100 have died. The CDC recognized this burden and appropriately recommended prioritizing incarcerated populations during initial vaccine rollout. The American Medical Association agrees, stating that “being incarcerated or detained should not be synonymous with being left totally vulnerable to COVID-19”.
Both groups recognized the increased risk incarcerated populations face due to congregate living settings and high prevalence of other health conditions in the population. These risk factors make make them similar risk to other congregate settings such as nursing homes. These recommendations were appropriately made strictly based on these factors, without regard to the presumed morality of the people who may be affected.
Yet few are following these recommendations. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has stated that prison guards and staff would be considered high priority, but incarcerated people would not receive these same benefits. Prison staff are potential spreaders to the communities where prisons are located, the statement said. The implication was clear: The lives and humanity of incarcerated people are deemed less valuable, less worthy of protection, than others.
A November Vox headline contained the telling words, “80% of those who died of COVID-19 in Texas jails had never been convicted of a crime.” This statistic may reflect the absurdity of the current prison system, yet when used in the context of COVID-19 deaths it ignores the humanity of all incarcerated people, regardless of their crimes.
This past year was a long and difficult year for many. Yet one positive thing was growing recognition of systemic issues that plague the criminal legal system and public pushback against these injustices. Despite a raging pandemic, millions of people took to the streets to demand the government and legal system recognize the value of Black lives, including those who are incarcerated.
Yet as the new year begins, an old pattern continues — a pattern of devaluing some lives, including Black lives, by flouting the CDC guidelines for incarcerated populations. This action has been met with minimal pushback. The familiar silence from the public and from policymakers reflects a long, sordid American history of devaluing the marginalized, including people of color and the poor, and accepting a criminal legal system that systematically harms them.
We cannot remain silent while incarcerated people are passed over for needed protections from COVID-19. Vaccinating prisoners is important not merely because of the risk they pose to surrounding communities. Incarcerated people also have inherent value as human beings, regardless of their guilt. And as a those facing highest risk of infection and complications, they should be among the first to receive the vaccine.
In 2020, thousands took to the streets to proclaim the value of Black lives. If we truly believe those slogans, then as the vaccines continue to be distributed nationwide, we must unequivocally and unapologetically prioritize the lives of incarcerated populations and be willing to personally sacrifice our own place in line to make this happen.
Sara Grundy is a MD/MPH student at Duke University School of Medicine and UNC School of Public Health. As a Schweitzer Fellow she co-founded Duke Health CARES (Collaboration and Re-Entry Support).