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  • Caitlyn Greene

The forgotten at-risk population, COVID-19 in the U.S. criminal justice system

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

As countries distribute vaccines to their citizens the world breathes a sigh of relief. In the United States health care workers and long-term facilities are receiving the vaccine to help diminish the spread in high-risk environments. However, a different and often overlooked at-risk community is once again at the center of conflict. Lobbying and political agendas have influenced vaccine distribution. As such, it is not surprising that there is a heated debate on whether the incarcerated, an at-risk population, should receive the vaccine earlier than other groups.

Inmates represent an at-risk population due to their overpopulated, close confinement living quarters, limited to no access to personal protective equipment and high numbers of underlying cardiac and respiratory conditions. During this global pandemic, the U.S. criminal justice system has displayed striking statistics because of these circumstances. Prisons and jails across the country have higher death rates when compared to the US population with California receiving media attention early on as they struggled to control COVID-19. At its peak, San Quentin reported approximately 75% of its population testing positive for COVID-19.

The Center for Disease Control released guidelines for states as they determine how to distribute the vaccine to their citizens. While correctional officers are to receive vaccines during phase 1B, states are approaching vaccine distribution to their inmates differently. For example, North Carolina proposed plans to distribute the vaccine to health care providers and people at high risk for severe disease and high-risk exposure to the virus. Within these groups, North Carolina specified that this would include people who live in congregate living settings- migrant farm camps, jails and prisons, homeless shelters, and other historically marginalized populations. In contrast, Colorado Governor Jared Polis took one of the most public stances against vaccinated inmates when he stated, “there’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners…before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crimes.”

Prison Policy recently conducted a study which found that “38 of the 49 states addressed incarcerated people as a priority.” While this is a step in the right direction, correctional staff are still being prioritized before incarcerated populations. For example, in Missouri, correctional officers and other staff members are placed in Phase 1B while incarcerated people are in Phase 3, which is designated for vaccinating every Missourian “who qualifies and needs or wants a vaccine.” The Marshall Project and the COVID Prison Project found similar results upon reviewing draft distribution proposals. Both found that at least six states would distribute vaccines to incarcerated populations in Phase 1, but it was more likely they would receive the vaccine during Phase 2 due to them being a critical population.

Public health experts say distribution to the incarcerated populations around the U.S. is a “common-sense epidemiological call” due to “cramped housing, inadequate medical care, disproportionality high underlying conditions, and high concentration of minorities” who have been most affected by COVID-19. Research has indicated that prisons and jails could serve to “incubate and seed the virus back into the general community” and health officials warn that to minimize harm, decisions should be made by epidemiologists to protect all of our populations. While states have proposed different timelines as to when incarcerated individuals may receive this vaccine, it does appear that some states are taking the advice from epidemiologists and taking the right steps to protect this high-risk population and ultimately all of the general public.


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