We need to prioritize incarcerated people as the COVID vaccine is distributed

  • Prisons are some of the most dangerous places for spread of COVID-19.
  • COVID outbreaks in prisons can also endanger the surrounding communities.
  • Incarcerated people are also part of our society and deserve to be kept safe, despite terrible conditions during the pandemic. 
  • We should follow the advice of health experts and distribute the vaccine to incarcerated individuals soon.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Sr. Director of Global Communications for Publicis Sapient.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Incarcerated people are deliberately overlooked and treated as disposable, so it's not surprising to see the COVID-19 pandemic further expose systemic inequities and racism in the US incarceration and detention policies. 

As we approach 300,000 pandemic-related deaths in the US, remember that the six largest COVID-19 clusters are in prisons. The government has a responsibility to protect everyone, and failing to help those in correctional facilities is an abdication of that responsibility. 

Federal officials insist that corrections staff should receive high priority for a vaccine, but they have not advocated for the 2.2 million individuals in their care. Meanwhile, many major health organizations, like the American Medical Association and The John Hopkins Center for Health Security argue for vaccinating incarcerated and detained persons. Congregant settings, like assisted living and nursing home facilities are already top of the list, so logic would dictate that detention centers and prisons be included.

It is immoral to promote any plan that doesn't mitigate the risk for all affected groups. It's not the government's job to say who is more "valued." 

Allocating precious medical resources to people who are serving time may be anathema to much of the public, but elected officials must find their backbones and listen to medical experts. 

Incarcerated people are members of our society

Incarcerated people are frequently at risk during crises. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, incarcerated people around New Orleans suffered for days without food, water, or adequate ventilation. They were left to die on top of a bridge while floodwaters rose around them. In New York during Hurricane Irene in 2011, there was no evacuation plan for those on Rikers Island, and the lack of care and planning for prisoners happened again the next year during Hurricane Sandy.

Incarcerated populations are uniquely vulnerable to the virus. They are four times more likely to be infected than people in the general population, according to a study by the criminal justice commission. Overall, COVID-19 mortality rates among prisoners are higher than in the general population. Outbreaks that start in prisons and jails may spread to the surrounding communities. 

Because incarceration is a practice that grew out of slavery's legacy, in our criminal justice system COVID-19 disproportionately infects and kills Black and brown people. If the US 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.

There is also a powerful public health argument for prison vaccination. Confinement is the antithesis of social distancing. Cells are small, supplies like soap and masks are scarce, testing is inadequate shared showers and common areas are natural COVID incubators. If all of that isn't bad enough, those who contract the virus often land in solitary confinement because prisons have nowhere else to quarantine them. 

The vaccine

Vaccines need to reach people in ways that uplifts the common dignity and humanity of those trapped within the prison and jail systems.

In Texas jails, 80% of the incarcerated people who have died from COVID-19 were never convicted of a crime. Failure to prevent avoidable deaths during these inevitable moments simply repeats the thoughtless action of previous natural disasters.

Federal incentives for states and local governments to adopt emergency management policies and will help save lives.

President-elect Biden, it's time to protect Black Lives  

We should be ashamed that fellow Americans have suffered and died needlessly because the Federal government failed to act on the advice of national health and medical organizations. 

Joe Biden throughout this pandemic has modeled his behavior and policy on COVID-19 according to health and medical experts at organizations, like the AMA and the CDC,  that have traditionally operated as a civil service to the government. He should continue to do so. Many of these same organizations are recommending that incarcerated people be vaccinated earlier than other groups because they are housed in congregate facilities that don't allow for proper social distancing, cleanliness or adequate medical care.

President-elect Biden's administration should continue listening to the AMA and the like, and enact federal incentives for states and local governments that protect the health of all their citizens, including incarcerated people.

All people are worthy of care. It is well beyond the time to act. New policies must be truly equitable and ensure everyone's human rights and dignities are protected.

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform activist, who is on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict, and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.

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