There are inmates in the US being sentenced to death for the pettiest of crimes. And Covid-19 is the judge, jury, and executioner.
The decision to put inmates at the top of various states’ Covid-19 vaccination priority lineups was met with much controversy. When a draft version of Colorado’s vaccination plan put inmates ahead of seniors and people with certain underlying conditions, the Republican district attorney voiced his displeasure publicly. He wrote an opinion column in the Denver Post saying, “As the son of a 78-year old father, I ask this: What in the hell is Gov. Polis doing?”1 Governor Polis even had to clarify that there was “no way” prisoners would be vaccinated before people who never broke the law. This controversy feels reminiscent of the boat scene in The Dark Knight, in which civilian passengers argue that the ship full of prisoners should be the one to blow up instead of theirs, saying things like “Those men had their chance!” Unfortunately Covid-19 isn’t being controlled by the Joker, and so there’s no evil face we can punch to make it all go away. However, we can make smart, researched policy decisions with the best interests of inmates and citizens outside of jails and prisons in mind. As controversial as prioritizing inmates is, the decision actually has a lot of basis in reality, and should, in fact, be practiced by most, if not all states.
For starters, inmates are much more at risk than the general population, both in terms of infections and deaths. It comes as no surprise that prisons, places in which hundreds and sometimes thousands of people are packed together and forced to eat and shower in the same rooms, are disease hotbeds. It’s also not exactly somewhere where you can just leave if you’re worried about catching a disease. Covid-19 is no exception. This chart by Prison Policy Initiative shows that counties with larger prison populations consistently reported more Covid-19 cases. According to the Marshall Project, a whopping 1 in 5 prisoners in the US has been infected with Covid-19.2 That’s 4 times as much as the general population! To make things worse, they are also twice as likely to die from the virus, due in part to the subpar health standards inside prisons. It is also due to age. As we all know, older populations are the most at risk for severe Covid-19 infections. The prison population has been consistently getting older for the last few decades. In 2016, the percentage of prisoners who are 55 or older surpassed the percentage who are 18-24.3 The aging population is due to “tough on crime” laws of decades past, according to Ned Benton, a professor of public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.4
But why should we care? These people have to have done something bad to be locked in there, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. We underestimate how many inmates have never actually been formerly convicted of anything. In fact, it’s an overwhelming majority: a whopping 74% of people being held in US jails have never been convicted of any crime, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. How could this be?
The answer is cash bail. The majority of these people are being held because of our cash bail system, which essentially punishes people for being poor. Sixty percent of people unable to make bail fall within the poorest third of US incomes, eighty percent within the bottom half.5 A particularly shocking graphic by Prison Policy Initiative shows that while the jail population has been increasing since the 80s, the amount of convicted criminals in jail has remained flat.
There’s an especially disturbing conclusion to be drawn here: that there are quite literally innocent people being forcibly exposed to this virus. If there’s anyone who deserves to be inoculated early, it’s them. The institution of cash bail is one that would likely take a while to do away with completely, but vaccinating prisoners would take care of one particularly unjust side effect of it.
Covid-19 doesn’t care what crime people are convicted of. It doesn’t care whether they were even convicted at all. Our justice system regarding sentencing and imprisonment has fundamental issues. Fixing the system won’t be done overnight, nor will it likely be done by a single piece of legislature. But giving inmates access to life-saving vaccines is only fair to those we’ve incarcerated, and is a damn good place to start.
1 Brauchler, George. “Brauchler: Prioritizing Prisoners over the Elderly for a COVID Vaccine Is Wrong in Every Way.” The Denver Post, 2 Dec. 2020.
2 Schwartzapfel, Beth, et al. “1 In 5 Prisoners in the U.S. Has Had COVID-19.” The Marshall Project, 18 Dec. 2020.
3 United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Corrections Reporting Program, 1991-2016: Selected Variables. Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2018-08-30. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR37021.v1
4 Li, Weihua, and Nicole Lewis. “This Chart Shows Why The Prison Population Is So Vulnerable to COVID-19.” The Marshall Project, 19 Mar. 2020.
5 Rabuy, Bernadette, and Daniel Kopf. “Detaining the Poor: How Money Bail Perpetuates an Endless Cycle of Poverty and Jail Time.” Prison Policy Initiative, 10 May 2016.