On December 10, a promising COVID-19 vaccine is in the final stage of review before it’s green-lit by the Food and Drug Administration. While the logistics of vaccine rollout remain murky, the federal Bureau of Prisons will be among the first agencies to receive them—but only for corrections officers. People who are incarcerated will not be included in the inoculations, according to the Associated Press.
Four states are also planning to vaccinate prison staff, but not prisoners, according to a December 8 briefing by the Prison Policy Initiative. Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas and South Carolina all have proposed three-phase vaccination plans to this effect.
The latter three do not have explicit plans for anyone held in, or employed at, their prisons—instead merely referencing “critical populations” and “essential workers.” But they do cite other documents that include corrections officers; all three point to guidelines by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that consider “corrections” workers to be essential. Connecticut also lists “corrections” as a group to be reached in the first phases of vaccine rollout, but does not distinguish between staff and prisoners.
PPI says incarcerated people will likely not be included in the “critical populations” category, while employees will likely be considered “essential workers.” The briefing’s author, PPI Editor Katie Rose Quandt, wrote that she does “not give these states the benefit of the doubt by assuming they intended to include incarcerated people” in the critical populations category in light of “our government’s history of medical mistreatment of incarcerated and detained populations.”
Arkansas is more explicit regarding its plan for staff, but not its prisoners. It has the highest rate of prisoner COVID-19 cases (6,268 per 100,000 prisoners), second only to South Dakota’s rate of 6,627 per 100,000 prisoners, according to the Marshall Project.
Arkansas’ Phase 1B, when vaccines are in limited supply, specifies the inclusion of state correctional facility employees. No mention is made of incarcerated people. While “[r]esidents of long-term care facilities and other congregate-living facilities” are listed in Phase 2, Quandt cautions that we shouldn’t assume vaccination of prisoners is implied, since vaccination of correctional staff is included explicitly.
Eight states—Alaska, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin— have no plan for vaccinating prisoners or staff at all. Texas and Florida rank first and fourth, respectively, for the highest total number of COVID-19 cases.
These 12 states with plans that fly in the face of public health stand out from the other 36 publicly available documents detailing roll-outs. (Minnesota and Pennsylvania had not complete plans available for PPI’s review.) COVID-19 cases have been four times as common in prison as in the general population, and twice as deadly, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.
“Incarcerated people and corrections staff should be prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19,” Quandt wrote. “States and the BOP should not consider vaccination of staff as sufficient to stop the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.”