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COVID-19 Crises in the Prison System

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, several states were asked to compile a roll out plan for the COVID-19 vaccine. There were priority phases and groups for each state. Hard decisions had to be made on who would get the vaccine first, who were priority populations and who had to wait until an opportunity was available. Some “critical populations” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defined included essential workforce, as people with increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness or people at increased risk of acquiring or transmitting COVID-19.

Several states prioritized incarcerated individuals at very low levels, while staff members were ranked higher. Concerns of these ethical dilemmas of who should receive the vaccine are major concerns because of the heightened risk for exposure. Now that the government and local officials are urging everyone to get vaccinated, how has this affected people in prisons and jails? Experts like, Epidemiologist at Harvard’s School of Public Health Monik Jimenez says that “overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of access to healthcare” will have major effects on the spiked virus transmission.

Worldwide there have been 285 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 5.42 million deaths. The numbers continue to rise. The United States reports 53.8 million people have been affected with COVID-19 and there have been more than 822 thousand deaths. The CDC has two main variants of concern, the

Omicron and Delta. Most recently in the U.S. the Omicron variant has spread very quickly. First identified in South Africa, it may spread more easily than the Delta variant.

More than 2,900 inmates, according to UCLA Law have died in prison due to the coronavirus pandemic, while more than 465,000 have been infected. The numbers for the staff are much lower with infected numbers reaching just more than 146,000 and less than 300 deaths.

With these conditions so

many people across the country are deciding whether they will choose to get vaccinated against the disease, while others are taking a different perspective. For example, NBA point guard Kyrie Irving is taking a stance that he is “choosing to be unvaccinated.” Certain people are uninterested in receiving the vaccine, perhaps religious reasons or wanting to wait and see if any new side effects arise. However, what about certain populations like those incarcerated who want to be vaccinated, but are unable to?

There is limited data available on current vaccine and booster shots information. According to Prison Policy there are four states: Delaware, Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota that are publishing booster dose data for inmates. Maryland is making booster shot information available for staff.

The coronavirus pandemic is far from over and continues to surge around the country. Many of the most vulnerable populations are incarcerated. Some prisons, state departments of corrections still do not meet the simplest efforts to mitigate the transmission. Most recently some institutions are implementing policies that if inmates are not fully vaccinated or have an approved religious exemption, they are not able to participate in family visitation programs.

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