Among the items left unaddressed on Dec. 18 when the Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee adjourned was whether to add those held in the state’s jails and prisons to the list of people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the second wave after frontline health care workers and nursing home residents.
Jail staff and correctional officers already have been deemed to be essential workers who, like first responders and grocery store employees, will be vaccinated before the general public.
So here’s hoping the vaccine advisory committee’s handling of inmates was not the manifestation of an attitude expressed earlier this month by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis: “There’s no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population. ... There’s no way it’s going to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime. That’s obvious.”
With all due respect to the governor, it’s far from obvious. This is not about crime and punishment. It’s about public health.
If any collection of people fits the definition of a vulnerable population, it is the men and women being held in jails and prisons. They live in crowded conditions with limited access to personal protective equipment.
The COVID Prison Project says the average rate of infection among prisoners is four times higher than the population as a whole.
Since the pandemic began, 270,000 inmates and 59,000 correctional employees have tested positive for COVID-19 — a number prisoner advocates believe has been substantially understated.
“Many of the largest reported clusters of COVID-19 infections are in correctional facilities, and the disparities between correctional and community COVID-19 rates are increasing,” the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice said earlier this month. “To maintain public health as well as public safety, frontline staff and incarcerated individuals should be among those who are given priority access to vaccines, personal protective equipment and other public health resources as they become available.”
The average inmate also suffers from compromised health. Many have abused alcohol and drugs prior to their incarceration. Tobacco smoking is more widespread among inmates. As a whole, inmates suffer from more mental health issues.
People who are serving time tend to come from impoverished backgrounds, which means their access to health care was limited.
They also suffer from underlying conditions, such as HIV and hepatitis.
When COVID-19 strikes a prison population, it does not remain there. When staff get exposed, they spread the virus to the outside community.
There’s a lot of churning among inmates. They can be transferred from one facility to another. Or they can be released when their terms of confinement end. By one estimate, 200,000 people are booked into the nation’s jails each week; an equal number are released.
And an infected inmate who requires hospitalization means placing more demands on already overburdened health care systems, whether in Idaho or, if needed, across the border in Washington state.
Consider the risk to rural communities. For them, prisons have become a double-edged sword. While they can provide jobs, the facilities can generate COVID-19 outbreaks that could swamp the limited capacity of small hospitals and clinics.
For instance, the Idaho Correctional Institution at Orofino reported in late November that 108 of its inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
Back in September, 104 inmates and five staff members of the North Idaho Correction Institution at Cottonwood tested positive. The 16 NICI inmates who displayed symptoms were transferred to the Orofino unit, which has medical staff on site.
As of last week, a dozen states and territories have included prisoners among the Phase 1 vaccination plans; another 24 intend to vaccinate inmates in the second phase.
This is not the time for Idaho to be an outlier. Incarceration is punishment enough for criminal behavior. Nobody deserves to presumed expendable. — M.T.