Some of the largest and most deadly COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in our country's prisons. The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that incarcerated people be included in phase 1B of vaccine distribution. But most states in the Mountain West are breaking with that guidance.
According to preliminary plans, correctional workers across our region will be vaccinated during phase 1, but only New Mexico will vaccinate incarcerated people during the first tier of distribution. Inmates in Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming will be vaccinated during phase 2 or later.
Medical and public health experts serving on Colorado's medical advisory board originally placed incarcerated people near the front of the line for vaccination, ahead of most healthy adults over the age of 65. But in a December press conference, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis walked that back.
"That won't happen," Polis said. "There's no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population."
Instead, Polis said that incarcerated people would only be prioritized if they were part of another high-risk group based on their age or underlying medical conditions. The state's revised plan, which was released without input from the medical advisory group, does not include inmates in any particular phase.
Advocates like Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Commission, argue that incarcerated people are among the highest risk populations because they don't have the ability to practice social distancing and sometimes lack access to other preventative measures, like face masks and frequent hand-washing.
"These are high-density congregate living environments," Donner said. "And there are new people coming into prison every day. Not just staff, but new incoming inmates. So, this is a very fluid population. Lots of people in, lots of people out."
Donner added that preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons is an important part of flattening the curve overall, since those outbreaks spread to the larger community via correctional workers and can strain hospital capacity. But she said the question of when inmates should be vaccinated has become politically charged in Colorado and elsewhere.
"The question of who is 'deserving' is actually not relevant," Donner said. "What is relevant is developing a vaccination strategy that is going to slow the spread as quickly as possible while protecting the most vulnerable. That's the only thing that should be guiding us. We all deserve to survive this pandemic."
Lalita Moskowitz, a staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico, said that prioritizing inmates for vaccination would help address the "compounded impact" of the pandemic on incarcerated people.
"COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black and brown individuals. And the same is true for incarceration," Moskowitz said.
Incarcerated people are also more likely to have underlying health conditions linked to serious COVID-19 risk. Moskowitz said that including correctional workers in phase 1 likely isn't enough to prevent outbreaks and deaths, since some correctional workers will choose not to be vaccinated, and since it's not yet clear whether individuals can spread the virus after being vaccinated.
"It ignores the most vulnerable people in that circumstance," she said. "People who are in our prisons are reliant on the state for everything. And because of that, the state has a moral and constitutional responsibility to provide adequate and necessary healthcare."
According to the CDC, more than 17 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed across the country so far. Vaccination plans in Mountain West states are preliminary. Incarcerated people could be moved to higher priority tiers or demoted to lower ones as distribution progresses.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.