With the FDA meeting on the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine days away, government officials will be tasked with the difficult decision of prioritizing vaccine recipients. Concurrently, they will be presented with the opportunity to place a historically-neglected group of people at the front lines of vaccination: those behind bars.
Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has run rampant in U.S. prison systems. A report by the Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs showed the disproportionate level of infection in Illinois prison facilities through June; and according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, incarcerated people are four times as likely to be infected and two times as likely to die from COVID-19 than the general populous.
This has been the harsh reality seen in prison facilities such as Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania and Elmira in New York. It comes as no surprise when one considers the difficulty to social distance within the confines of a prison, the lack of PPE available and the unsanitary nature of the facilities in which inmates reside — a framework that provides the perfect environment for a COVID-19 outbreak.
So, as the CDC accepts the nonbinding guidelines on distribution by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, state officials should make other considerations that are consistent with the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 seen in prison facilities.
The recommendation made by the National Academies of Engineering, Science and Medicine prioritizes allocation of resources in Phase 1 and 2 to older and younger inmates, respectively. With the arrival of a vaccine within reach, research suggests that there are also benefits to the greater populace from inmate vaccinations, as many cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to prison facilities.
It goes without saying that the criminal justice system has cheapened the value of Black and Brown lives within and outside prison walls. As the Federal Bureau of Prisons anticipates vaccinating staff members before high-risk inmates, it must also consider that prioritizing the vaccination of those behind bars would be a small step on a long path toward justice reform.