'All of the guards, all of health care workers, all of the individuals that go in and out of prison are spreading it in society,' said a criminal justice reform advocate.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) slammed states this week for including prison inmates among those who should receive a coronavirus vaccine earliest.
"First, Democrats wanted to pay states to let criminals out of jail," Jordan tweeted Tuesday afternoon. "Now, they want to prioritize the #COVID19 vaccine for prisoners."
But Jordan's remarks disregard data that indicates that infection rates among inmates are sky-high. Not only does this contribute to the community spread of COVID-19, but it also disproportionately affects communities of color.
The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice notes that the infection rates for the virus are four times higher for inmates than for the general population. And prisoners are twice as likely to die if they contract the virus.
In federal prisons, the Associated Press reports, as of Tuesday, nearly 6,000 federal inmates and 1,620 staff members have tested positive for the virus and are actively sick. Nearly 30,000 federal inmates and 2,718 staff members have previously contracted the virus and recovered. A total of 171 federal prisoners have died of COVID-19.
When state and federal numbers are tallied together, the outlet finds, 1 in 5 state and federal prisoners in the United States have contracted COVID-19 and 1,700 have died of the disease.
These numbers are also likely to be grossly underreported, experts say.
"That number is a vast undercount," said Homer Venters, formerly the chief medical officer at New York's Rikers Island jail.
Experts consider prisons to be COVID hot spots for various reasons, including crowded environments, dormitory-style living, and inmates' underlying conditions.
"Our research suggests that people in prison should be among the first groups to receive any COVID-19 vaccine to protect against infection and to prevent further spread of the disease," University of Oxford psychiatrist Dr. Seena Fazel told the Lancet.
"If the biggest hot spots for COVID are prisons, doesn't it make sense to inoculate everyone from the guards to the prisoners?" said criminal justice reform advocate Ashish Prashar. "All of the guards, all of health care workers, all of the individuals that go in and out of prison are spreading it in society. Wouldn't you start at the hot spots and stop that? And take care of those individuals first?"
A delayed vaccine rollout for prisoners would have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
"Racial disparities in the nation's criminal justice system compound the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color," the Associated Press reported. "Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. They are also disproportionately likely to be infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, and are more likely than other races to have a family member or close friend who has died of the virus."
On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reversed an earlier ruling that would have prioritized the vaccination of prison staff ahead of inmates, but there is still much work to be done at a state level.
As of Wednesday, Texas officials were unclear as to when prisoners would be receiving the vaccine. The Texas Tribune reported that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has dodged questions on the matter, and that a University of Texas Medical Branch spokesperson said that only health care workers were currently at the top of the list.
South Dakota's inmate infection rate is the highest in the country, with 62% of prisoners in the state having been infected with the coronavirus. But prisoners in the state are slated to receive the vaccine at a later date than prison staff.
Though Jordan seems unconcerned by the data, other lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed their commitment to protecting inmates.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) told CNN Sunday that she intended to do what she can to fight for the rights of prisoners, particularly prisoners of color, to receive the vaccine.
"And I'm going to continue to fight for our most vulnerable communities who have been disproportionally impacted by the virus, for our health care workers, for our essential workers, for incarcerated men and women to be prioritized in the distribution of the vaccine," Pressley said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.