This month many of us stopped what we were doing to watch Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, receive one of the first COVID-19 vaccines — developed by the drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech — in the United States. Lindsay said at the time, “I feel like healing is coming… I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.”
I think a lot of us stopped to witness Lindsay’s vaccination because, for the first time, we can finally see some light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel and the possibility of thousands of lives spared. The death toll in the U.S. recently climbed over 300,000; COVID-19 has surpassed cancer and heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States.
Development of a safe and effective vaccine was the first step, but how states roll out their vaccine distribution — to include to those most vulnerable — is just as important. Among the first to receive vaccines have been health care workers and the elderly living in residential care facilities. Those incarcerated in jails and prisons should also be at the top of the list.
It is impossible, with bunking accommodations, shared bathrooms and other communal spaces, to remain physically distant while incarcerated. Since the beginning of the pandemic, several prisons and jails statewide and nationally have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities.
According to a Dec. 16 report by The Colorado Sun, close to 250,000 inmates have contracted coronavirus nationally and 1,700 have died. Here at home, El Paso County Jail inmates have filed a class action lawsuit in response to one of the largest outbreaks in the state at the facility. Inmates are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and three private attorneys because, in a 1,200-person facility, more than 900 inmates have contracted the virus. The lawsuit alleges that inmates did not receive proper personal protective equipment (PPE) until after the outbreak began in November. Additionally, some inmates who tried to take make masks from underwear and bed sheets were punished, the lawsuit claims.
Of the billions of dollars annually that flow through the prison industrial complex, it’s hard to imagine that masks would break the budget.
Colorado’s original plan had put incarcerated people in the second round of vaccinations. But last month George H. Brauchler, district attorney for Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, wrote a Denver Post op-ed criticizing Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment for “prioritiz[ing] the health of incarcerated murderers, rapists, and child molesters over the lives of law-abiding Coloradans 65 years and older and immunocompromised adults.” Gov. Polis amended the vaccination plan to prioritize age and health over where someone lives.
Prisons and jails that don’t take proper precautions to stop the spread of the virus are inadvertently sentencing some people — who are already convicted and serving their time — to a de facto death penalty. Also, not everyone in jail has been convicted of a crime but are held because they cannot afford to post bail. Does this mean they are no longer worthy of life? The spread of this virus has exposed how we treat those who are impoverished and vulnerable in this country, and it is deplorable.
Dan Williams, one of the attorneys representing El Paso County Jail inmates, told The Denver Post, “Hundreds of people contracted COVID-19 in the jail and suffered unnecessarily because of the sheriff’s deliberately indifferent failure to protect them from an obvious risk of infection and harm to their health.”
In the lawsuit, some inmates claim that jail staff said they “plan to let the virus run its course.”
It has “run its course” through
thousands of inmates already — and that doesn’t necessarily equate to building herd immunity. How many more will we put in its path?