Global COVID Vaccination Rates for People in Prison Remain Far Too Low

    On December 14, Harm Reduction International (HRI) and Penal Reform International (PRI)—two non-governmental organizations based in the United Kingdom that advocate for harm reduction and prison reform, respectively—published the first global report on policies and practices relating to COVID-19 vaccinations in prisons.

    The paper, published independently online, details a general lack of transparency over vaccination rates in prisons and highlights how governments and policymakers have failed to adequately vaccinate incarcerated people, even though they stand as one of the most at-risk groups.

    “The absence of information available and accessible from official sources on vaccination plans and roll-out in prisons is in violation of the right to health,” the authors write. “Failure to provide transparent information impedes an accurate assessment by government authorities, the healthcare service, and civil society of the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of government responses to COVID-19 in prisons.”

    Broadly speaking, the authors divided global responses into four distinct categories. Those are jurisdictions that have: “explicitly prioritized prisons, including prison populations as a higher-risk group;” “included prisons within plans or roll-out, but not as a (high) priority group;” provided “equivalence for prison populations or staff with the group that individuals would fall within in the community; and “not specifically referred to prisons, prison populations, or staff at all in national vaccination programs.”

    “Only 20 countries had provided at least 80 percent of their prison population with at least one dose of the vaccine.”

    The authors acknowledge that some information, of course, was difficult to ascertain. But the analysis, culled from a mix of “press releases, civil society reports, responses from international organizations, and news reports,” determined that only 56 of the 131 countries for which there was reasonable data “explicitly mention people in prison.” Of those just 51—or 39 percent of available national vaccination plans—gave some priority to vaccinating people in prison against COVID.

    As of September 2021,” the report also notes, “available figures indicate that only 20 countries had provided at least 80 percent of their prison population with at least one dose of the vaccine.” They include one country in Africa, two in Central and South America, nine in Asia and eight in Europe. The United States, where many public health policies are determined at state level, was not part of this group.

    Vaccinating people in prison has been a contentious debate in the US since the onset of COVID, even though countless health departments have emphasized its importance. Federal, state and local authorities are now pushing for vaccine mandates for corrections officers—some of whom have taken to the streets to protest the requirements. Jurisdictions are not, however, pushing for vaccinations for the incarcerated population. Though some states have previously introduced measures to encourage people in prison to get vaccinated, case rates in US prisons have been four-to-five times higher than in the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In May 2021, the think tank estimated that just 55 percent of people in prison had been vaccinated.

    The HRI and PRI report concludes with 13 policy recommendations, in which they call for people in prison to explicitly be a part of countries’ vaccination rollouts, for authorities to publicly release COVID-19 vaccination statistics among the incarcerated, and for policymakers to take immediate measures in order to reduce prison overcrowding.

    “In short, both public health and human rights considerations and standards recognize that vaccinations are a crucial element to curb further COVID-19 infections among prison populations, who should thus be prioritized in roll-out plans,” the authors write. “Although vaccination is not a fix-all solution, it is one among a range of necessary measures to protect the health and human rights of people deprived of liberty.”



    Photograph by Jenn Vargas via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alex was formerly Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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