Early Vaccine for Incarcerated Called ‘Ethical Imperative’

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Photo courtesy Province of British Columbia via Flickr

Over 250 experts and practitioners in bioethics, the treatment of infectious diseases, public health, epidemiology and criminal legal policy have called for incarcerated populations to be given equal priority with correctional staff in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

In an open letter released Thursday by the University of California Law School’s “COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project,” the signers said it was an “ethical imperative” to provide the same level of early protection from the pandemic to everyone exposed to prison environments.

“We have seen arguments favoring prioritization of correction staff over incarcerated people, offered on the ground that staff are vectors of transmission from the facilities to the surrounding community and vice-versa,” the letter said.

“But incarcerated populations are not static; every day, in prisons and jails around the country, people cycle into and out of facilities, often transmitting the virus with them. The population churn is especially great in jails, which admit and release an estimated 10-12 million people every year.

“To meaningfully reduce the rate of transmission, it is critical to ensure vaccination of the entirety of both the residential and working populations of corrections facilities.

“And given, as we have noted, the disproportionate risk of death the incarcerated face from COVID-19, as well as the possibility that corrections staff may opt not to be vaccinated, we continue to strongly believe the incarcerated should be given equal priority for vaccination.”

The letter is addressed to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is tasked with recommending priority levels for receiving the vaccine among the U.S. population. Health care workers and other first responders are considered to have top priority status.

The ACIP will meet December 19 and 20 to discuss the next priority group to receive the vaccine.

The open letter also urges that the vaccine be administered to the incarcerated only after they have given “informed consent,” following a discussion about the vaccine’s effectiveness and potential risks.

“In light of the historical legacy of medical experimentation, the inherent reality of coercive control in carceral environments, and the deep distrust many incarcerated people and their families feel towards correctional authorities, careful steps must be taken when implementing the vaccine protocol in carceral facilities to maximize uptake while respecting the autonomy of incarcerated recipients,” said the letter.

Giving the incarcerated population the option of informed consent humanizes the process even more, and gives them the opportunity to take charge of their own health just like someone who isn’t incarcerated, the letter said.

The letter follows on the heels of guidelines from the American Medical Association individuals living in congregate settings, such as prisons, jails and other correctional facilities, should be given early priority.

The letter also urged that individuals held in immigration detention centers be named as priority targets for vaccination.

While many states have claimed that the incarcerated population will be prioritized in administering the vaccine, their rules on prioritization are vague and often lack specificity in putting incarcerated individuals at the top of the list, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

As of early December, just 27 of the 48 states that have submitted vaccine distribution proposals to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mention incarcerated people as a priority group within the first two phases of distribution, the letter said.

Some states have pushed back against the idea of prioritizing prisoners for vaccination.

“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners … before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” says Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday that incarcerated populations will be assigned 1B priority for the coronavirus vaccine, placing them behind frontline workers and those in long-term care facilities, reported North Jersey dot com.

Phase 1B also includes “first responders, essential workers, those older than 65 or with underlying medical conditions,” which amounts to about 3.7 million people, according to New Jersey’s vaccination plan.

New Jersey has reported 487 confirmed cases of the virus among correctional staff in a 16- week period. There were 52 inmate deaths between April and July, and at least 2,892  cases between the same time period; and at least 548 cases since mid-August.

The UCLA letter cited statistics showing that people who are incarcerated are 5.5 times more likely to contract the coronavirus than those who aren’t incarcerated, and three times more likely to die from it.

Among the reasons for their vulnerability are the lack of adequate protective equipment and poor sanitary conditions. Many individuals also enter prison in poor health or weak immune systems.

The open letter is a part of UCLA Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, which was launched in March as a way to track how the coronavirus was disproportionately affecting those who are incarcerated or work in a correctional facility.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 2.3 million people are behind bars in the U.S. That includes 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal penitentiaries, 1,772 juvenile detention facilities, 3,134 jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails.

Additional Reading: Gaps Found in State Plans to Give Incarcerees COVID Vaccine

A copy of the letter can be accessed here. Readers interested in adding their names are invited to download the Google form here.

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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