Prisoners have been excluded from Covid vaccine plans. And health experts are sounding the alarm

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A protester waves a “Black Lives Matter” flag across the street during the demonstration. Representatives from various organizations including Free the People Roc and HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long-term) travelled to Elmira Correctional Facility from across the state to protest the conditions faced by inmates during the Covid-19 pandemic. The state prison in Elmira, N.Y., has seen a rash of coronavirus cases.

Kit MacAvoy | SOPA Images | LightRocket via Getty Images

LONDON — The U.S. and U.K. have already started to roll out their national coronavirus vaccination programs to curb the spread of the virus, but health experts and campaigners alike are deeply concerned about the notable absence of prison populations in existing guidance.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet made any decisions about prisoners when it comes to vaccine access, though it is thought incarcerated individuals may be included in the second phase of allocation.

In the U.K., the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has said the top priority for the Covid-19 vaccination program should be to prevent death and support the maintenance of health and social care systems. There is no specific mention of prisons.

The U.S. CDC and Public Health England, which oversees JCVI, were not immediately available to comment when contacted by CNBC.

Both countries have administered the first shots of the PfizerBioNTech vaccine outside of trial conditions in recent days, boosting hopes that a mass roll-out of safe and effective vaccines could soon bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, as coronavirus cases and related deaths continue to surge, experts are questioning the ethics of how governments plan to distribute the first vaccines.

“We are facing a real big dilemma here,” said DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national justice reform organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half.

Speaking at a Chatham House webinar earlier this month, Hoskins said incarcerated individuals were “still considered less than human … and we are responding in that way as well when we start talking about access to vaccines.”

Covid hotspots

Health officials have been warning about the dangers of epidemics for those incarcerated for years, citing an inability for people to maintain safe physical distancing in correctional facilities because of their confinement in small shared spaces.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen America’s jails and prisons become Covid hotspots. Incarcerated individuals are almost four times more likely to become infected than people in the general population — and twice as likely to die, according to a study by a criminal justice commission.

If the biggest hotspots for Covid are prisons, doesn’t it make sense to inoculate everyone from the guards to the prisoners?

Ashish Prashar

Justice reform advocate

“From my perspective, and the information we have, we need to consider where prisoners fit in terms of their risk in relation to other high-risk groups. On the face of it, prisoners would be high-risk for a few reasons,” Seena Fazel, department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, said in a report published in The Lancet medical journal on Dec. 12.

Fazel said prisoners were at high risk of contracting the coronavirus because of underlying chronic conditions, age and the environment. He cited a systematic review of prison settings carried out by his team which identified correctional facilities as high-risk settings for the transmission of a contagious disease, with considerable challenges in managing outbreaks.

“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,” he said.

A view of a new emergency care facility that was erected to treat inmates infected with COVID-19 at San Quentin State Prison on July 08, 2020 in San Quentin, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The CDC has recommended that those at increased risk of infection and mortality to the coronavirus should be vaccinated early on, but while federal officials say corrections staff should receive priority access to a vaccine, they have not yet advocated for prisoners to receive the same allocation.

Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University Grossman School of Medicine, said in the report published by The Lancet that he does not agree with plans to only vaccinate prison staff.

“If they’re at risk and they’re older or sicker, they should just get vaccinated. If they’re in conditions that don’t allow them to isolate, they should get vaccinated. I see no reason to distinguish.”

Racial disparities

“If the biggest hotspots for Covid are prisons, doesn’t it make sense to inoculate everyone from the guards to the prisoners?” said Ashish Prashar, a justice reform advocate and senior director of global communications at Publicis.

Speaking at the Chatham House webinar on Dec. 4, Prashar said: “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 hotspots and stop that? And take care of those individuals first?”

A nurse holds a sign during a nurses protest at Rikers Island Prison over conditions and coronavirus threat on May 7, 2020 in New York City.

Giles Clarke | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Mass incarceration in the U.S. does not impact all communities equally, with African Americans disproportionately incarcerated in U.S. correctional facilities.

In addition to racial disparity within the U.S. criminal justice system, an updated report by the CDC earlier this month found that, when adjusted for age, Hispanic and Black Americans were found to die as a result of coronavirus at a rate of almost three times that of White Americans.

“Half a million people have not been convicted of a crime, but we have deprived them of their liberty,” said Celia Ouellette, founder and chief executive of Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, a not-for-profit group that works to increase safety across systems of criminal justice and incarceration. Her comments referred to those in the U.S. who have not been convicted of a crime but are being held in jails.

“So, there is a moral obligation to treat those people the same as the surrounding community — or potentially better because they don’t have the access to the same choices that surrounding communities do.”

“We need to stop thinking about inmate populations as a category of people and start thinking of them as people in the same way that we do in the communities around prisons and jails,” Ouellette said at the same Chatham House webinar.

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