Vaccinating the Prison Population Will Help Protect All of America | Opinion

You may not think of the millions of people behind bars as your neighbors, but when it comes to COVID-19 they are.

COVID has hit our 7,000 correctional facilities and the more than two million people who reside and work in them especially hard. According to the Marshall Project, there are nearly 250,000 cases of coronavirus reported among inmates that have resulted in over 1,600 deaths.

It is imperative for states to think critically about vaccinating the prison population. There's a temptation to dismiss this recommendation as either insignificant relative to the scale of the national COVID-19 pandemic or because prisoners, because of their criminal acts, are less worthy of our concern and resources. But prisoners are not the only people in prisons. Over 62,000 prison staff have also been infected resulting in over 100 deaths.

These infections and deaths among prison staff point to a critical, under-examined problem. Coronavirus didn't originate in prisons; it was carried into correctional facilities by staff and visitors. Once inside, it has spread rapidly through the population for whom social distancing is impossible. These infected prisoners then share the illness with other prison staff who carry the disease back into the community. As a result, some of the most disease-burdened counties in the U.S. are those where correctional facilities are located. Prisoners may be out of sight and largely out of mind, but from an epidemiological standpoint prisons are very much part of the communities that surround them.

Most of the state plans we've reviewed appropriately place top priority for vaccination on health workers and elderly living in nursing homes. A few states specifically mention prisoners as a population targeted for vaccination behind these first groups but mostly the states are silent on the issue. This increases the chance that this vulnerable group will be pushed to the back of the line. This would be the wrong approach for communities were prisons are located.

We are not arguing for preferential treatment for inmates in the vaccination campaign. Instead, we believe that state public health authorities charged with setting immunization priorities should be guided by the best available science for controlling disease outbreaks. Of necessity, that means focusing on all populations that live or work in congregate housing settings, including prisoners and prison staff. Slowing infections within prisons will reduce disease both inside and in the surrounding communities.

Without an explicit commitment to immunizing the incarcerated population early, there's a risk that an unfair and irrational bias against immunizing incarcerated people may take hold. Rather than engaging in a politically charged game of "who deserves it?" and treating exposure to COVID-19 as an extension of criminal punishment, we should focus on science-based strategies that will bring the disease under control as rapidly as possible. Inoculating incarcerated people early will help cut off the prison-to-community COVID-19 pipeline.

Black and Latinx individuals, the kinds of people who are disproportionately represented among the nation's inmate population and correctional staff, have also suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 infections, illnesses and deaths. By controlling COVID-19 cases in correctional facilities, we have a chance to reduce illness and death for everyone and signal to these particular communities that they, too, have a share in the modern-day miracle of COVID-19 vaccines.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on job training, workforce development, and criminal justice reform. He has worked for the United States government for 20 years, including senior roles at the Department of Labor and at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Rashawn Ray is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. He is on Twitter @SociologistRay. Dr. Howard Henderson is a non-resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, a Professor of Justice Administration at Texas Southern University, and director of the Center for Justice Research. John M. Eason is the Director of the UW Justice Lab and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.