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Prisons and jails have been hit hard by the pandemic, with major outbreaks across the country. But when it comes to allocating scarce vaccines, states have dramatically different ideas about how inmates should be prioritized. And the experience of one state, Colorado, shows the role politics can play in these difficult decisions. Stephanie Sy has that story.
Now: vaccines for those who are incarcerated.
Prisons and jails have been hit hard by the pandemic, with major outbreaks across the country. But when it comes to allocating scarce vaccines, states have dramatically different ideas about how inmates should be prioritized.
The experience of one state, Colorado, shows the role politics can play in these difficult decisions.
Stephanie Sy has that story.
At age 19, Anthony Quintana Jr. was convicted of murder. Now nearly 51, he's still serving out his 40-year sentence at Limon Correctional complex in Colorado.
Anthony Quintana Sr.:
He's admitted to his part, and he's been there for 32 years. That's a long time. We're trying everything we can to get him home.
His parents, Anthony Sr. and Kathryn Quintana, say their son grew up in prison and has tried to put his time there to good use.
He's taken every program imaginable in there, from computers, to electric, to HVAC, heating and cooling, bricklaying, plumbing.
And he's a musician also.
You sound like you're really proud of your son.
We really are proud of him.
We're not proud of where he's at, but we're proud of everything that he's done.
He is still paying for his crime, but the pandemic has meted new punishments. In December, Anthony Jr., a diabetic with asthma, was among hundreds of inmates infected with COVID-19 at Limon.
It just really scared me, because of the close — closeness in that facility. I just — I really worried.
According to Department of Justice data, many inmates have chronic health conditions, and COVID-19 can be more deadly in those cases.
Not only do inmates face a 45 percent higher COVID mortality rate than the general population. Their rate of infection has been four times greater. Just in Colorado, nearly half the state's inmate population has been infected with the virus.
Dr. Anuj Mehta:
I think, purely based on the science, that warrants some prioritization over the general population.
Dr. Anuj Mehta is a pulmonologist and intensive care physician in Denver. he chaired a panel convened by Colorado's governor, Democrat Jared Polis, to offer science-based recommendations on prioritizing vaccine distribution.
Incarcerated individuals were included high on the list, namely because like, in nursing homes or homeless shelters, congregate living in prisons and jails makes controlling COVID outbreaks extremely difficult.
We knew that prisoners were far more likely to contract COVID. We looked at risk of death, which prisoners are more likely to die of COVID if they were to get — contract it, and then also the ability to socially distance or the ability to employ kind of those core public health measures, like mask-wearing.
And on all three of those levels, regardless of the congregate setting, they were unable to do that.
But when the recommendations came to light, there was a backlash. An op-ed appeared in The Denver Post criticizing the governor for prioritizing prisoners over the elderly.
The writer, then-Arapahoe County district attorney George Brauchler, argued his 78-year old father would have a harder time getting vaccinated than a convicted killer.
If we have one vaccine, and the two people to choose from are a 45–ear old mass murderer or a 65-year-old innocent person, there's no question. It is the 65-year-old innocent person.
And to the backlash now over Colorado's decision to prioritize prisoners for receiving the COVID vaccine first.
Right-wing media outlets amplified the outrage.
How many people would get arrested just so that they could go into jail and get a shot?
And speaking with reporters at a coronavirus briefing late last year, Governor Polis walked back the state plan, and then some.
Gov. Jared Polis:
So, there's no way it's going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven't committed any crime. That's obvious.
He got poked in the eye, and he kowtowed.
Christie Donner is head of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. She said the governor's pivot was political.
It's being suggested by some that this population is somehow less deserving of the vaccine.
Our perspective is that the question of deserving isn't even relevant, because we're all deserving. We all deserve to survive this. And so that's why we're so committed around following the science and helping people have good information about how they can stay safe and well, to the greatest extent possible.
Not just science, but social justice is at play, Donner says.
Our governor has indicated that he is very aware of the disparities and wants to have a communication and an outreach strategy, specifically in Black and brown communities, in the public at large.
And we keep saying to him, do you realize the contradiction there, where you're ignoring people that are in prison, who will both — who are disproportionately people of color and the fact that you're putting their families at greater risk by not vaccinating when they're in, and then they go home, and they don't know if they are going to be exposing their family?
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, which tracks how states are prioritizing inmates in vaccination distribution, only 10 states specifically make the incarcerated eligible in the first phase. Most states put them in phase two, before the general population, but after the elderly and other at-risk groups.
In a statement to the "NewsHour," a spokesman for Governor Polis wrote: "The governor supports the dignity and innate worth of every human life, and declared early on that incarceration status will not make a difference in terms of the timing of receipt of the vaccine."
But Colorado now gives no specific prioritization to inmates, a policy which even George Brauchler, the Republican who wrote that scathing editorial, says fails to take into account the risks of congregant living.
I want those inmates to be vaccinated. I'm completely comfortable with the idea that they should be vaccinated before me and the other healthy members of my family. I don't have any problems with that at all.
But when it comes to discriminating between 60-, 65-year-olds, immunocompromised, medically compromised and those healthy 35-year-old prisoners, there's no question in my mind where that vaccine should go.
For criminal justice advocates, the state's current plan also ignores another issue, the impact the pandemic has on inmate operations, like food service, maintenance and laundry, functions often performed by inmates themselves.
Donner's organization is now asking the governor to at least start vaccinating that critical work force.
At least understand that, in a prison context, you have essential workers and that those essential workers should be prioritized.
Back at Limon, Anthony Quintana Jr. is on the mend, but his parents still worry about him.
All the inmates are really scared in there. They're completely scared.
His activities and visits have been cut.
They're paying for their mistake in prison. I mean, are they supposed to be punished all their lives? Isn't there any room for rehabilitation?
This virus can be a death sentence to many, which it is. Now, why should they draw a death sentence for a mistake that they made?
The last visit to their son was in March of 2020, before the pandemic began. They're dreaming of the day when it's safe enough to see him again.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.
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