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Prioritizing prisoners for vaccines stirs controversy

By David Montgomery
Stateline.org/TNS

AUSTIN, Texas - When he walked out of the H. H. Coffield Unit, a prison in Anderson County, Texas, in mid-August, Barton Gaines left behind a world gripped by sickness and death.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck the Texas prison system during the final months of Gaines’ 18-year sentence for an aggravated armed robbery conviction. He thought he had been spared when he turned up negative on one of the frequent coronavirus tests administered to inmates, but just days later, he recalled recently, “I felt like a truck ran over me.”

Gaines, 38, was immobilized for about a week in mid-summer with aches, allergies and flu-like symptoms. He never tested positive for COVID-19, but he is convinced he was infected with the virus, which was sweeping through his dormitory and other parts of the East Texas prison unit.

“Just about everybody in the dorm got it,” he said. “Seems like all the bosses were getting it too.”

Since the start of the pandemic nearly 10 months ago, more than 27,000 inmates and 7,700 staff members and officers in the 100-plus-unit Texas prison system have contracted COVID-19. Although most of them have recovered, at least 177 inmates and 33 prison employees have died. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced five more inmate deaths on Dec. 16. Five prison employees died within a 6-day period through Jan. 3.

The very nature of jails and prisons—people living in close quarters with restricted movement and limited options for social distancing—has made them more susceptible to the coronavirus than much of the rest of society. But even though long-awaited vaccines are finally at hand, prisoner advocates fear that public antipathy toward inmates and politicians’ reluctance to make them a priority will delay or restrict the drugs’ arrival behind bars.

“The fact that people in prison have been convicted of a crime should not deprioritize their need for an important public health measure like the vaccine,” said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit authorized to investigate conditions inside the New York prison system.

Scaife and other advocates say the vaccines are desperately needed inside prisons and jails. Approximately 20 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons have been infected, a rate more than four times as high as that in the general population, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press and the Marshall Project.

Nationwide, at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected and more than 1,700 have died, according to the report.

Anthony Petty Jr., who spent 30 years in prisons on a murder conviction before his release from the central detention facility in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 11, recalled in a recent telephone interview that he and his fellow inmates lived in constant fear of contracting the potentially lethal disease.

“Everybody was afraid of it because it was killing people,” said Petty, who was first incarcerated when he was 15 and spent his adult life behind bars. “But at the same time, we had nowhere to go, so we just got to deal with the situation.”

Like other inmates in his unit, Petty said he kept his mask on, washed his hands and faithfully complied with other protocols. “You did the things you were supposed to do and hope, inshallah, it doesn’t come to you,” Petty said.

As states began administering the COVID-19 vaccine last month - often in high-profile photo-ops - the first recipients were health care workers and long-term care residents. Few questioned their position at the front of the line.

But a nationwide review of state plans for administering vaccines in prisons found wide variations among the states. According to the study, conducted in early December by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, at least 38 states addressed incarcerated people in their vaccine plans, but most of those states prioritized prison staff over incarcerated people, and 11 states appeared to have no plans for incarcerated people at all.

“What this tells us is that most states are not thinking very hard about the challenges that people in prison would face right now,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. “The impact of COVID-19 has been massive. It’s been absolutely devastating.”

So far, seven states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico and Pennsylvania) have designated inmates as top-priority “Phase One” recipients for vaccines, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s December survey. New Jersey has begun vaccinating inmates and staff at the state's largest correctional facility, and other facilities are expected to follow suit.

The federal prison system will offer vaccines to prison employees, but has no immediate plans to inoculate prisoners, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said in a press release.

The plan for the more than 120,000 inmates living behind the walls of the massive Texas prison system, one of the largest in the country, was still unclear early this week. The Texas Department of State Health Resources, which will oversee the distribution of vaccines in the state, has designated people who are incarcerated as “vulnerable,” but hasn’t disclosed their place in line.

Sharon McKinney, director of programs for the 1,900-member Texas Inmate Families Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, said it would be “a big mistake” not to prioritize inmates along with staff members in a vaccine regimen. But perhaps an even greater concern to families, she said, is ending the 10-month-ban on prison visits that began with the pandemic. “It’s been horrible,” she said.

A dust-up involving two prominent public figures in Colorado underscored the political sensitivities of putting prisoners ahead of other groups on the priority list for vaccines.

After a draft version of a state vaccine distribution plan appeared to put incarcerated people ahead of seniors not in prison and residents with certain health maladies, Republican District Attorney George Brauchler took a public swipe at Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

“As the son of a 78-year-old father, I ask this: What in the hell is Gov. Polis doing?” Brauchler wrote in an opinion column published Nov. 29 in The Denver Post.

During a joint news conference with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci on Dec. 1, Polis was asked to respond to Brauchler. “That won’t happen,” Polis said, according to the Post. “There’s no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population.”

In an emailed statement to Stateline, Polis’ press secretary Conor Cahill said the governor believes Colorado has a “moral obligation” to put “frontline health care heroes” and all seniors, whether they are incarcerated or not, at the front of the line.

“Inmate status will not make a difference in terms of timing of receipt of the vaccine,” Cahill said. “Someone who falls into a category for early priority of the vaccine and is in custody will receive the vaccine at the same time as someone in the same category who is outside our correctional facilities.”

But inmates and their advocates say they deserve to be in the first group to be vaccinated.

Christopher Blackwell, 39, an inmate at a Washington state penitentiary who is serving a 45-year sentence for a robbery and murder he committed in his early 20s, argued in The Washington Post that he and other inmates have not been sentenced to “suffer or die from a virus.” In an impassioned op-ed published on Dec. 11, Blackwell said prisoners “ought to be near the top of the list” if the standard for dispensing the vaccine “involves helping the most vulnerable.”

More than two dozen members of Congress, led by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Virginia Democrat, are also advocating for a change in the federal prison policy to allow for vaccinations of inmates.

“To put the matter in perspective, the virus is moving through the prison population three times faster than it did on commercial cruise ships at the start of the pandemic,” the U.S. House members wrote in a letter to the directors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“To deny priority vaccination to individuals in forced confinement is to abdicate our responsibility at a time when the public has called for a reckoning of the criminal justice system and racial injustice.”

But even if the vaccines are made available to prisoners, many inmates may balk at getting the shots. Scaife of the Correctional Association of New York said that when her group asked inmates at one corrections facility whether they would take the vaccine, “only about half of the hands in the room went up.”

Bertha Johnson of Waterloo, Iowa, whose 30-year-old son is imprisoned on gun charges, said that she doubts that he would get the shot if it becomes available and ventured that at least some of his fellow inmates at the Iowa State Prison in Fort Madison share that attitude.

“A lot of them down there don’t want to take that shot,” Johnson said in a recent telephone interview. “They’re afraid of the side effects.”

Scaife and others said the prisoner reluctance also reflects an inherent distrust of prison health care among many inmates, particularly among prisoners of color.

“I think there is this very real perception among some people in prison, particularly people who have been in prison for a long time,” she said, “that prisons are not to be trusted with their health.”

Approximately 20 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons have been infected by COVID-19, a rate more than four times as high as that in the general population, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press and the Marshall Project.