Pennsylvania’s prisons and jails have been ravaged by COVID-19. Incarcerated people, and the staff who supervise them, were among the first to suffer in the pandemic. They should also be among the first to be vaccinated, not only for their benefit but to protect the broader community.
For example, over half of the people incarcerated at State Correctional Institute Laurel Highlands have recently tested positive for COVID-19. This is especially frightening because this facility functions as a correctional nursing home for the sickest and oldest incarcerated people. Correctional staff has also been hit hard, creating an environment that is universally stressful and potentially dangerous. Other prisons have been similarly impacted, with an increasing amount of staff and incarcerated people testing positive.
From a public health perspective, prisons are unique. Behind their walls, it can be impossible to socially distance; almost everyone has a cellmate, eating is designed up to be communal, and bathrooms are shared by dozens. Security restrictions prevent using the type of alcohol-based disinfectants that have become the norm in the community. Older facilities are poorly ventilated. The high population density creates an ideal environment for the spread of disease.
As a population, incarcerated people are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus. In addition to the challenges created by their environments, many people who are incarcerated have preexisting health conditions that make them vulnerable to serious infection and long-term complications. As a result, incarcerated people are four times more likely to die of COVID-19.
Last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a framework for vaccine distribution. Adopting a primarily ethical perspective, it determined that incarcerated people should receive the vaccine early because they live in “congregate or overcrowded settings including … prisons, or jails.” This would place them in the second wave, alongside nursing home residents, but after frontline health workers.
This means that people in prison might get the vaccine before you or I do. Though perhaps counterintuitive to some, this is both ethical and in everyone’s best interest.
While it is true that people in prison may have broken the law, dying of COVID-19 is not a part of their sentence. While they have lost their liberty, and that is their true punishment, we have a moral and constitutional obligation to keep them safe while they serve that punishment.
Practically, vaccinating the entire incarcerated population is necessary to stop community spread. Absent universal vaccination, prisons will continue to be a source of infection. Staff, chaplains, and visitors enter prisons every day. When they return to their neighborhoods, so will the coronavirus. This is true for prisons in both rural and urban areas; the impact is nearly universal.
Correctional staff also deserve to work in an environment that is as safe as possible. Until the vast majority of incarcerated people are vaccinated, staff will remain at risk. The high rates of infection among correctional employees underscores the risk they bear and our obligation to protect them.
Simply put, society cannot continue to act as if incarcerated people and the general public suffer from two separate pandemics. As wards of the state, the costs of treating incarcerated people, one should remember, are ultimately borne by taxpayers and will require the diversion of significant resources from our already overburdened community hospitals
The time for action is now. Other states have started to consider how, when, and even if, incarcerated people should be given access to a vaccine when it becomes available. Unsurprisingly, reactions are polarized. In Connecticut, for example, incarcerated people will be included in the second wave of distribution, along with nursing home residents and others living in “congregate settings.” In Colorado, on the other hand, the governor has made clear that incarcerated people should be among the last to be vaccinated.
To protect all Pennsylvanians, we simply must vaccinate the entire incarcerated population as soon as is possible.
This action will help stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and from prisons back into the rest of society. Failing to do so would endanger marginalized communities that are both overrepresented in the penal system and have been hardest hit by the COVID crisis — and prevent us all from moving safely forward.
Jordan M. Hyatt is an associate professor in the department of criminology and justice studies and the director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University.