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People in Prisons and Jails Should Get COVID-19 Vaccines As Early as Possible

The coronavirus has ripped through our prison and jail populations, infecting and killing hundreds of thousands of people most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a public defender, fighting to get people out of cages. I’ve witnessed the violence our legal system does to people of color: the war on drugs, draconian three strikes laws, broken windows policing, militarized police—all policies that have locked up millions of Black and Latinx people and destroyed the stability of our communities. The racial disparities of the penal system are overwhelming. 

I have watched mass incarceration plague people who look like me. Now another plague is tearing these communities apart in a similarly disproportionate way.

For the last 10 months, we have seen COVID-19 rage through jails and prisons, killing people at double the rate of the general population and creating hotbeds of infection across the U.S. It’s no surprise the virus thrives where social distancing is impossible, hand sanitizer is banned, and soap is a luxury. The danger the virus poses means that even a minor offense—even a minor accusation—that leads to getting locked up is a potential death sentence. 

Now, with multiple vaccines on the horizon, there’s genuine hope we may be finally turning the corner on the pandemic. But as we start to figure out who gets the first, precious shots, we must add to the list those same people our society has put in cages. People in our prisons and jails should be among the first to get vaccinated.

It would be easier to forget about these people. After all, they must have done something to end up there, right? That is false and immoral thinking. We must resist it. It’s also poor public health management.

Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices met to determine who gets priority in vaccine distribution.  The committee voted 13-1 to recommend that both healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities be first in line for any coronavirus vaccines. 

This makes sense. People who are living and working in circumstances that put them at highest risk of dying from COVID-19 should be first. That’s why people incarcerated in our jails and prisons must also be prioritized.

Prisons and jails are just like other congregate living facilities—but many times worse. Two people often share a cell roughly the size of a large clothing closet. Because of overcrowding, others live in large dormitory-style rooms with poor ventilation. They share toilets, sinks, showers, and dining spaces. Many jails and prisons do not provide free soap. Masks and proper personal protective equipment, like gloves or face shields, are rarely provided. Because of these living conditions, most of the largest COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. have been jails or prisons. Nearly 230,000 people incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons have tested positive for the disease, and that number is increasing. 

People in prison are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of the physical toll prison exacts on physical health. Each year served in prison takes two years off a person’s life expectancy. Research shows that incarcerated people have health issues at rates comparable to people 10 to 15 years older on average. That acceleration makes incarcerated people more vulnerable to chronic health conditions. Those conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and respiratory diseases, are “among the most frequent causes of death in state prisons,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative—and all increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

In California, where I live and work, the coronavirus has ripped through prisons, infecting 25,000 people in custody and killing more than 90 incarcerated people and 10 staff members. In Texas, nearly 27,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19, 167 of whom have died from the disease. According to one study, nearly 80 percent of the people who’ve died of the disease in Texas jails were incarcerated pretrial, meaning that they had not even been convicted of a crime. 

But it’s not just about the lives of the incarcerated. Prisons and jails operate like mini cities. Thousands of people come and go every day—law enforcement officers, pastors, teachers, nurses, social workers, family members, sanitation workers, vendors. If the virus goes unchecked, all these people will bring it to schools, groceries stores, gas stations, and other public places. 

Vaccinating prison populations is essential to maintain community health. 

It’s also necessary to push back on the compounding racial disparities of pandemics and prisons. Prisons in the U.S. are disproportionately filled with low-income and Black and Latinx people—communities the disease has disproportionately killed. People of color account for almost 70 percent of the prison population. Black and Latinx people are almost 3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. The dangerous, unsafe living conditions of those who are incarcerated and the racial disparities of incarceration and COVID-19 mortality must be factored into the decision-making process about vaccine priority.

Unfortunately, because of our nation’s history of medical experimentation on communities of color, many in prison may not trust a vaccine that is administered by a correctional facility. Experiments like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study—where over a 40-year period, the federal government told Black men they were receiving free healthcare when, in fact, they were observed to see the long-term effects of untreated syphilis—have created a distrust that may be difficult to overcome.

We are already planning to give prison staff the vaccine earlier than most because they are essential workers. We could provide the same vaccine to people in prison at the same time the staff receives it. That would not just demonstrate to them that the vaccine is safe but also push against the longstanding fears engendered by past unethical government experimentation. Good choices here wouldn’t just save lives but could be a critical step in repairing longstanding systematic racism.

Nelson Mandela said “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 

This virus has taken many things from us. Let’s not let it take away our compassion and humanity. 

Brendon Woods is the first Black chief public defender in Alameda County, California, and currently the only Black chief public defender in California.