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Colorado’s Governor Bows to Pressure in Denying State Prisoners Priority COVID-19 Vaccinations

An initial state vaccination plan was released in October 2020. It placed individuals in “congregate housing” — such as prisons and jails, where risks are similar to those in nursing homes — in the second group to receive injections, after health care and other essential workers.

But the governor shifted gears after a guest editorial in the Denver Post on November 29, 2020 blasted him for putting prisoners high on the priority list: “There’s no way [the vaccine is] going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” he responded after the editorial was published.

The reversal raises all sorts of ethical questions regarding the state’s fulfillment of its moral obligation to protect and care for those in its sole custody, who have little to no control over their conditions of confinement. According to a February 12, 2021 analysis from the Colorado Health Institute (CHI), the COVID-19 virus had infected state and county carceral facilities, sickening 16,177 and killing 32 prisoners and staff. Colorado’s federal prisons and ICE facilities have not been spared, suffering high rates of infection as well.

Outbreaks at prisons, jails and other carceral facilities accounted for 1 in every 24 cases of COVID-19 in Colorado since the start of the pandemic, and 15 of the 20 largest outbreaks in the state have occurred in prisons and jails, according to the analysis. Every study done by health care professionals and researchers has shown that death rates among incarcerated people are significantly higher than those of the general public.

Colorado, like most states, only began receiving supplies of the vaccines in December, and has been scrambling to come up with a way to distribute them. Everyone understands that health care workers, nursing home residents, and people over 70 who are at increased risk should get the vaccine first. Individuals in jail and prison have no other option for getting the vaccines, and based upon their increased risk of infection, borne out by state and national statistics, should also be prioritized regardless of age or pre-existing conditions.

Prison workers return home every day to their homes and communities, and if there is high rate of infection in their workplace, they will be at high risk of spreading it to their communities. Only nursing homes in the state, with many more residents than there are prisoners, reported a higher number of infected individuals than the incarcerated. 

Colorado’s challenges in this area reflect studies by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has noted that people in jail and prison “may also be older or have high-risk medical conditions that place them at higher risk of experiencing severe COVID-19, (due to) “the inability to physically distance, limited space for isolation or quarantine, and limited testing and personal protective equipment resources.” 

The Colorado Department of Corrections states that 30% of people incarcerated in Colorado state prisons have “medical needs,” 35% have “mental health needs,” and 7% are over age 60.

The Marshall Project, which maintains a dashboard of COVID-19 cases in state and federal prisons, says its statistics show that individuals in a correctional setting are five times more likely to be infected by the virus than members of the general public.  


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