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Governors Should Prioritize the Covid-19 Vaccine for Everyone in Jail

People who are incarcerated have been largely left out of the vaccine eligibility process.

jail vax
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last spring, Covid-19 brought into sharp focus the abhor­rent condi­tions in our over­crowded jails and pris­ons. There was hope that we might finally begin to decar­cer­ate, send­ing home people for whom there is no good public safety reason to be locked up. That unfor­tu­nately did not happen, despite hundreds of thou­sands of infec­tions and thou­sands of deaths among incar­cer­ated people.

After reach­ing histor­ical lows in the middle of 2020, by Novem­ber, many jail popu­la­tions across the coun­try returned to their pre-pandemic levels. The result is a severe and urgent danger to both every­one behind bars and the surround­ing communit­ies, and it is a public health neces­sity to vaccin­ate every­one in jails as soon as possible.

People who are incar­cer­ated have been largely left out of the vaccine eligib­il­ity process. A New York judge recently ruled that the state must imme­di­ately begin to offer the vaccine to all incar­cer­ated people in the state’s pris­ons and jails after they had been arbit­rar­ily left out. Now, some or all people in prison are vaccine-eligible in 37 states plus DC, while 21 states and DC have similar rules for people in local jails.

One year ago this week, Michael Tyson was the first person incar­cer­ated at New York City’s Rikers Island to die from Covid-19. Since then, virtu­ally noth­ing has changed for those behind bars. There are still too many people like Tyson held in jails for noncrim­inal tech­nical viol­a­tions of parole, like miss­ing a drug treat­ment class. As of Febru­ary, more than 1,100 people were still in New York’s jails for such reas­ons.

Jails are a cent­ral locus of infec­tion and spread, not only because of poor condi­tions, but because of the enorm­ous churn of people through their doors. Social distan­cing is nearly impossible. Indi­vidu­als sleep dozens to a room, share bath­rooms and showers, and often receive inad­equate medical care. Outbreaks in jails have fueled further community spread, as people detained for short peri­ods of time, staff who work there, and visit­ors and volun­teers carry the virus beyond the jail walls.

In June 2020, the situ­ation looked some­what prom­ising. Thanks to pres­sure from famil­ies and advoc­ates, local offi­cials made efforts to “flat­ten the curve” and reduce jail popu­la­tions. A coali­tion of at least 30 elec­ted prosec­utors called for their peers to release people deemed nonthreat­en­ing to soci­ety. Others followed Baltimore State’s Attor­ney Marilyn Mosby’s lead, who in mid-March announced that her office would dismiss pending charges against anyone arres­ted for a number of low-level offenses. And by mid-April, Chica­go’s Cook County Jail had released 1,300 people — roughly 25 percent of its popu­la­tion — when prosec­utors, defense attor­neys, and the sher­iff agreed to release some pretrial detain­ees.

Many wondered if these actions would stick. But popu­la­tions in four of the nation’s biggest jail systems — Hous­ton, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — are now either higher or just as high as they were prior to the pandemic. This has been primar­ily driven by the steep increase in the number of people held pretrial, often because they are unable to pay bail.

Although national stat­ist­ics describ­ing the full scope of Covid-19 infec­tion in jails are hard to come by, some juris­dic­tions shed light on the current scale of the prob­lem. In Los Angeles, nearly 4,300 people in jail and nearly 3,000 staff have tested posit­ive since the incep­tion of the pandemic. In Mari­copa County, Arizona; Orange County, Cali­for­nia; Phil­adelphia; Chicago; and New York, cumu­lat­ive cases among incar­cer­ated people total nearly 9,000, accord­ing to UCLA’s Covid Behind Bars project.

To be sure, viol­ent or gun-related crime has risen in some places over the last year, and so too has the propor­tion of people held for more seri­ous charges — a popu­la­tion that was excluded from early 2020 efforts to decar­cer­ate. Research­ers have spec­u­lated that this rise was due to a perfect storm of factors, includ­ing economic decline and increases in unem­ploy­ment, a surge in fire­arm owner­ship, and mental health effects such as isol­a­tion, hope­less­ness, and loss. More needs to be done to under­stand the root causes of this rise, and inter­ven­tions beyond punit­ive crim­inal justice responses must target these drivers.

The dangers posed by Covid-19 could have accel­er­ated efforts to unwind mass incar­cer­a­tion. But the threat of the virus — to people in jail, the staff who work there, and the communit­ies both return to — endures. What’s more, the pandemic further exacer­bates exist­ing racial and ethnic dispar­it­ies in both the crim­inal justice and health­care systems, requir­ing more radical approaches to ensure that these dispar­it­ies do not persist. This makes vaccin­a­tion efforts in jail facil­it­ies all the more urgent.