With the majority of corrections officers declining the COVID-19 vaccine, incarcerated people are still at serious risk
Low rates of vaccine uptake among correctional staff make it clear that withholding the vaccine from people who are locked up — or offering it only to a small fraction of the prison population — is senseless.
by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer, Prison Policy Initiative
Correctional staff in most states have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccination for months, prioritized ahead of many other groups because of the key role staff play in introducing the virus into prisons and jails and then bringing it back out to surrounding communities. Against the recommendations of medical experts, many states chose to vaccinate correctional staff before incarcerated people, often claiming that staff would serve as a barrier against the virus entering prisons and infecting people who are locked up. Now it’s becoming clearer than ever that this policy choice was a gigantic mistake: New data suggests that most prison staff have refused to be vaccinated, leaving vast numbers of incarcerated people — who have been denied the choice to protect themselves — at unnecessary risk.
We compiled data from the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project/AP, and other sources, and calculated the current rate of staff immunizations in 36 states and the Bureau of Prisons. We found that across these jurisdictions, the median vaccination rate — i.e. the percentage of staff who had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose — was only 48%. The numbers are even more disturbing in states like Michigan and Alabama, where just over 10% of staff have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
This data confirms what we’ve learned anecdotally over the past few months through local news reporting. For example:
In Colorado, vaccine uptake among correctional staff has been so poor that the state is now offering staffers $500 each to get the vaccine.
The Marshall Project reported in mid-March that“In Massachusetts, more than half the people employed by the Department of Correction declined to be immunized. A statewide survey in California showed that half of all correctional employees will wait to be vaccinated. In Rhode Island, 30% of prison staff have refused the vaccine, a higher rate than the incarcerated, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. And in Iowa, early polling among employees showed a little more than half the staff said they’d get vaccinated.”
These low rates of vaccine uptake among correctional staff make it clear that withholding the vaccine from people who are locked up — or offering it only to a small fraction of the prison population — is senseless. No policymaker in any state should assume there is a firewall of vaccinated staffers protecting incarcerated people from the coronavirus.
As the new data shows, it’s simply not true that ‘offering’ the vaccine to correctional officers amounts to protecting incarcerated people or the public from the rapid spread of the virus in correctional facilities.
Especially as the U.S. experiences a potentially disastrous “fourth surge” of the pandemic, it remains urgently necessary to:
Offer the vaccine to all incarcerated people — now. As we’ve discussed before, incarcerated people are much more likely to contract and die from the coronavirus, because outbreaks behind bars are common and a disproportionate number of incarcerated people have chronic medical problems that make the virus more deadly. (In many of the states we researched, officials andjournalists have noted that incarcerated populations have had much higher uptake rates than staff.)
Depopulate prisons and jails. The coronavirus thrives in dense environments, so releasing people is still the best way to stop outbreaks behind bars — and as long as staff and incarcerated people aren’t vaccinated, outbreaks are certain to continue. States should be considering the most medically vulnerable incarcerated people first, and not excluding people automatically based on whether they committed a violent crime (we’ve written at length about the perils of leaving behind whole categories of incarcerated people). Unfortunately, prison releases have been very sparse so far.
As the new data shows, it’s simply not true that “offering” the vaccine to correctional officers amounts to protecting incarcerated people or the public from the rapid spread of the virus in correctional facilities. What states must do is make the vaccine truly accessible to both corrections staff and people who are locked up, and immediately begin increasing prison releases through commutations, good time credits, and expansions of parole. As long as states ignore and neglect incarcerated people, there will be no end in sight to the pandemic in prisons and jails.
This article was originally published on April 21, 2021 at PrisonPolicyInitiative.org
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