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Mississippi Joins Illinois and Few Other States Prioritizing Vaccination of State Prisoners to Slow Spread of COVID-19

“We talked to the guys and ladies upfront and let them know, ‘Hey, if y’all want to get back to normal and get activities going, visitations, increase our religious, academic and vocational programs, let’s do this,” said CMCF Superintendent Ronald King, who was among the first to get vaccinated.

MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain said that shots would be offered to every state prisoner, though the vaccinations are not mandatory. Kings stressed letting CMCF prisoners know “we got the vaccinations ourselves and told them, ‘Hey guys we took the vaccinations ourselves and everything’s working out fine.’ We want everybody to take the vaccination.”

Meanwhile, as the U.S. rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continued in March 2021, their availability to prisoners was wildly uneven, with just under half — 43% — of California’s more than 94,000 state prisoners receiving at least a first dose, while not one of Florida’s 80,000 prisoners had received any at all.

But just as where you were incarcerated determined your chances of being vaccinated against a disease that by March 2021 had infected more than 20 percent of American prisoners — versus just under 10 percent of the total population — the question of prioritizing prisoners for vaccination was itself being reported differently in various media outlets.

According to an article published in The New York Times on March 17, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had “recommended prioritizing prisoners for vaccines.” But in a report two months earlier by Illinois TV station WCIA in Champaign, a decision by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to vaccinate all 35,000 of his state’s prisoners at the same time as prison guards — ahead of other adults with underlying medical conditions — was “a deviation from CDC guidelines.”

Although the CDC has recognized that custodial populations are vulnerable to the virus, the directive issued through its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) says that “essential frontline workers” to be included in Phase 1b of the national vaccination effort should inoculate all those who have “close interaction with the public” — including corrections officers, but not prisoners. A strict reading of this is why Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) promised, “There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen.”

But Pritzker also obviously did the math for Illinois, whose entire population of state prisoners represents barely one percent of over three million citizens included in the 1B category. He called his decision “a focus on equity.”

“We know that black and brown communities have been affected by COVID in a way that others have not,” Pritzker said, recognizing that the over-representation of those demographics in state prisons puts their entire population in greater jeopardy.

With most prisoners housed in cramped quarters, state prison officials across the country have confronted the need for social distancing to combat COVID-19 by shrinking the number of incarcerated people through a hodgepodge of policy options: early release, pardon and reprieve, even putting the brakes on new intakes from county jails.

By putting Illinois’s prisoners just behind health care workers and the elderly living in nursing homes — and ahead of those with heart, breathing or kidney problems, as well as cancer patients and workers who face “increased risk of exposure” — Pritzker immediately drew the ire of state Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods).

“I was shocked, frankly,” he said. “A 20-year-old convicted murderer who is going to be spending life in prison is going to get the vaccine faster than people who are on the outside — law abiding citizens. Not only do I think that’s wrong, I think it’s immoral.”

“What is humane?” countered the Reverend Michael Atty. “Is it humane to keep people in close confines, knowing that a contagious virus that literally has been killing people, to put them at the very bottom of the list?... As a Christian, as a person of faith, Jesus Christ said, ‘What you do to the least of these, you do you do also to me.’ So, morally, it is our responsibility as community, as the city, as the citizens, to take care of those who the widows, the orphans, our children, our elders, those who are incarcerated, paying back their debt to society.”

With a degree in bio-ethics, McConchie also accused the governor of “prioritizing trying to decrease transmission over really decreasing mortality.” Though transmission of the disease is much higher in prisons than in the rest of Illinois — infecting more than one in four inmates versus one in twelve people in the total population — the mortality rate in state prisons is only half what is in the entire state, McConchie said.

Nevertheless, prisoner advocates, including 60 community groups, successfully convinced Pritzker to move prisoners up in the line of vaccine recipients to join teachers, soldiers, police and firefighters, ahead of the homeless and patients with pre-existing conditions. In addition to his stated goal of “effectuating equity,” the governor may have been trying to avoid a repeat of disease outbreaks in 2020 at Chicago’s Cook County Jail that left almost 75% of prisoners and staff infected and the disease spreading to surrounding communities.

The blowback Pritzker received reflects a pervasive bias against the incarcerated. In Pennsylvania, a program to give prisoners $25 cash payments to take a COVID-19 vaccine met with public anger, even though the money did not come from taxpayer funds (See “COVID-19 Continues Rampage Through Pennsylvania State Prisons” elsewhere in this issue of PLN).

Nationally, prison mortality rates due to COVID-19 are far higher than in the general population — 2.1 times as high as of August 2020. In Arkansas, Delaware, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon, the death rate in state prisons was over seven times as high as that in the general population, no doubt fueled by an aging population of prisoners with many underlying health problems.

Taking note of this: Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has bucked her critics and pushed to vaccinate more of her state’s prisoners, with doses going to over half by mid-March 2021, the highest inoculation rate of any state prison system.

But after a public outcry, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis discarded similar advice from a panel of health experts. Sounding much like his Florida counterpart, Polis said there was “no way” a vaccine dose would “go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.”

Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) officials also caved to criticism and halted vaccinations of state prisoners in January 2021, after just 1,000 of the state’s 12,000 inmates had received a dose. Vaccinations resumed the following month after U.S. District Court Judge Stacie Beckerman issued the country’s first court ruling ordering a state prison system to vaccinate every prisoner it holds.

ODOC estimated, however, that only 55 percent of its staff would take a dose of the vaccine, even though “almost every outbreak in the ODOC facilities has been caused by staff members bringing the virus into the prison before they were symptomatic,” Assistant Director for Health Services Joe Bugher said in a declaration..

With the addition of Mississippi, about half of states are including prisoners in early stages of their vaccination plans. Texas and Arkansas also announced limited vaccine availability for state prisoners in March 2021. In other states, though, prisoners are subject to the same criteria for prioritization as the general population: The first doses go to those who are the oldest and whose underlying medical conditions put them at increased risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

On March 18, 2021, the administration of President Joe Biden promised to have 100 million people vaccinated by his hundredth day in office on May 1, a goal he met with 40 days to spare. Meanwhile, Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the vaccination backlog in that state is being gradually eliminated.

“There are others with similar risk categories to you who may get vaccinated first,” Ezike said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not your turn to be vaccinated. But ... there is no way for every single person to get vaccinated at the same time.”

That message may fall on deaf ears in some cases, though. A March 2021 report by The Marshall Project found widespread resistance to the COVID-19 vaccination among prisoners, with fewer than one in five inmates planning to accept it in Arizona, for example. Some pointed to historical examples of prisoners who were used as medical guinea pigs, while others expressed fear that prison health-care systems wouldn’t help them if they suffered an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

But for others, like Christopher Dawson, a prisoner at Columbia Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, the vaccine is a risk worth taking, especially if it means ending lockdowns — some prisoners haven’t seen their families in almost a year — and resuming college classes or substance abuse treatment shut down to slow the spread of the disease.

“This has been a horrible experience dealing with this virus inside of here,” he said, adding that he’ll take a vaccination in order to “get back as close to normal as possible.” 


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