Incarcerated people are suffering from covid-19 more than most. They should be among the first vaccinated.
"My friend’s second email ended, “Please send your prayers.” Her cousin, a Black man in his 50s, had just tested positive inside California State Prison-Corcoran. Her first email had shared his impending sense of doom. That day had started with news of a covid-19 death in his facility. Next, first one roommate and then another were removed after testing positive. Then, by day’s end, the news came that there were more people in covid wards than in regular housing. Now, her cousin, too, had tested positive.
Another friend wrote me about her cousin, another Black man in his 50s, this one in Texas, who described people with covid in his prison being housed in unheated tents without any medical care. He described watching stretchers go from the tent to the medical facility — writing that he believed infected people were being moved to medical care only once they were too sick to walk.
In this pandemic, America’s incarcerated people are suffering far beyond most Americans. As the COVID Prison Project reports, as of Dec. 2, the rate of covid-19 in the prison population was nearly four times that of the general population. Prison staff are also suffering, although data on that front is less complete. With the news of vaccines, the end is in sight for those of us on the outside, but not for most of those inside.
As states roll out their vaccine programs, they are typically prioritizing high-risk health-care workers, first responders, people with significant comorbidities, residents in congregate settings, and older adults in congregate and overcrowded settings, often roughly aligning with recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Incarcerated populations come in subsequent tiers of vaccination — or, in the draft plans of 13 states, they don’t show up at all.
But, of course, prisons house all of the categories of people who are in the first tier — health-care workers in high-risk settings, correctional officers who are first responders, people with underlying conditions and older adults in overcrowded settings. And our state and federal governments have a direct responsibility for the health of people who are in their custodial care.
Bad health care should never be part of someone’s penal sanction. Nor should we ignore failings on this front on the grounds that the people facing a health crisis are convicted offenders. They are human beings, whose rights and dignity should be evident in our decision-making about them. Whatever our governments do to incarcerated people, they do in our names.
We should therefore lift up and celebrate the nine states and one territory that have done the right thing by including incarcerated populations in the first tier for vaccine prioritization. These are: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Thank you for your moral clarity and leadership.
These states have recognized both the humanity of people in their prisons and their full belonging to our community.
For too long, our approach to punishment has drawn on a practice of alienation, of placing offenders out of sight and, so, out of mind, of banishing them into contexts where the establishment of healthy social relationships requires conjuring honey from stones.
But human beings are social animals, who by and large need healthy relationships and memberships in a healthy community to thrive. While offenders are serving their sentences, the goal for most is to make it to the end, to survive and to have the chance to reconnect in healthy ways with society. But reconnection will require a set of mental and psychological muscles that have to be developed over time, not just switched on when a person walks outside the prison doors. Prison itself works against the necessary kind of growth offenders often need. So, too, does society’s deeply ingrained habit of turning its back on prisoners.
Actions speak louder than words. States making the decision to include incarcerated populations in their first tier of prioritization for vaccine distribution are restoring a broken social bond. The decision pulls incarcerated people back into community and social belonging.
That commitment — to see incarcerated people through a lens of human, relational connection — could transform our entire system of justice, if we could build on it and make decisions consistently focused on a principle of our being one community.
I am praying for my friend’s cousin. Join me.
Danielle Allen, a Post contributing columnist, is the author of “Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.”