States Must Prioritize Incarcerated People for the Vaccine, Before It’s Too Late

The 2.3 million people locked in the 6,000 correctional facilities around the country—our family members, spouses, children and parents—are human. Their care must be prioritized.

States Must Prioritize Incarcerated People for the Vaccine, Before It’s Too Late
On June 7, 2020, hundreds of advocates protested outside Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary to demand Gov. Wolf release thousands of people from prisons and detention centers. (Joe Piette / Flickr)

After what had been slow efforts nationwide, a patchwork of vaccine plans are now being released around the country, which is good news.

Some states—including California, Oklahoma, Oregon and New York—have smartly opened up vaccine access to those incarcerated people still trapped behind bars during this pandemic.

But the bad news is that not all states have followed the actions of these four, and are still dragging their feet on vaccinating incarcerated people, leaving them, as always, the most vulnerable during any kind of man-made or natural crisis. Indeed, Florida has only recently earmarked vaccines for some of its incarcerated populations, after refusing for months.

The refusal to make the COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccine education, available to incarcerated people nationwide only illustrates the way that this population is still viewed—and still treated—in the United States. They are treated as if their lives don’t matter, a belief still rooted in this country’s deplorable legacy of slavery.

Incarcerated people’s lives have always been at risk, especially during this pandemic. According to research from the Journal of the American Medical Association, incarcerated people are infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall infection rate. And the death rate of incarcerated people from COVID-19 is also 34 percent higher than than the national rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

The 2.3 million people locked in the 6,000 correctional facilities around the country are our family members. They are our spouses, our children and our parents. They are human. Their care must be prioritized.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

As formerly incarcerated people, we know that correctional facilities breed disease and illness. Social distancing is not possible in prisons and jails, and supplies like masks and soap can be scarce. Medical testing is inadequate, and hand sanitizer is often prohibited as contraband.

If we are a country that cares about the safety and human dignity of our most marginalized people, then our incarcerated brothers and sisters must receive the care and basic human respect that they deserve.

Our recently released National Platform—the first of its kind—reflects the experiences and expertise of those who have been directly impacted to make nationwide policy recommendations. The platform calls for both immediate and long-term actions, including improving the Bureau of Prison’s emergency preparedness in case of future pandemics and natural disasters.

Simply put, we must uplift the common dignity and humanity of incarcerated people, and develop solutions that will protect lives, such as requiring the Department of Corrections to evacuate vulnerable people from correctional facilities during crises, including people with respiratory illnesses, pregnant women and those over 50. And it is imperative that those still inside be given access to all necessary safety precautions, including masks and vaccines.

To be sure, marginalized populations are still understandably hesitant of the vaccine, in part because of the history of racist medical experiments done on Black people—including the syphilis experiments on Black men by at the Tuskegee Institute from 1932 to 1972, as well as the fistula treatments on enslaved women in the 1840. To address this, the public health community must recognize its own role in the country’s history of systemic racism, and provide clear and concise education on the vaccine, including using trusted messengers in the faith community to reduce the hesitancy.

There can be no doubt that everyone deserves the same level of medical care and humane treatment. We urge the Biden-Harris administration take the critical steps necessary to decarcerate the United States through these key solutions that demand humane medical care and vaccine education for our incarcerated family members, and take the much-needed steps forward to rectify the systemic discrimination that has impacted marginalized communities for too long.

Up next:


DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national justice reform organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half. She served as a senior policy adviser at the Department of Justice and as the director of reentry for Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of County Commissioners.