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Prisons, jails are COVID-19 hotspots. Is vaccinating inmates a priority?

Jails and prison, which house 2 million incarcerated people, have had some of the largest rates of COVID-19 in the country. As new vaccines begin to be distributed, what priority do incarcerated people take in receiving treatment? NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green speaks with Oregon Director of Corrections, Colette Peters, and staff writer for The Marshall Project, Jamiles Lartey, to learn more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. are in the prisons and jails that house more than two million people. Most states agree that vulnerable populations should get top priority as new vaccines are distributed. But should the nation's incarcerated be included on that list?

    NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green spoke with two experts on that topic: Jamiles Lartey, staff writer for The Marshall Project, and Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and a trustee of the Council on Criminal Justice.

  • Zachary Green:

    So, Jamiles, I want to start with you. As of now, how many incarcerated people have contracted COVID-19? And how does the rate of COVID infections in jails and prisons compare with the rest of the country?

  • Jamiles Lartey:

    So we are rounding the corner on a quarter of a million folks in state prisons and the federal prison system having contracted the coronavirus. This week, there are at least 21,400 cases, an increase of about 40 percent from the previous high watermark. So the crisis is clearly getting worse in prisons, the same way that it's getting worse virtually everywhere else in this country. There have been close to 1,700 deaths so far in this pandemic in US prisons.

  • Zachary Green:

    Director Peters, you oversee all of Oregon's correctional facilities. How has the coronavirus been making its way into your state's prisons? And what are the challenges that you're facing in protecting the health of incarcerated people and the staff who work there?

  • Colette Peters:

    So first of all, prisons were not made with public health in mind. They were made to be as efficient as possible and house as many people as possible. And so social distancing really is almost impossible inside of a prison.

    Probably the most important thing that we did in order to comply with the social distancing requirement is we shut our prisons down immediately to anybody but essential personnel in order to prevent the flow of human beings from the community coming inside.

    That being said, we still have almost 4,000 corrections employees in Oregon coming in and out of our institutions every day and living in our communities.

  • Zachary Green:

    Jamiles, can you give us a sense of what different states are doing to protect their incarcerated populations and the staff working inside jails and prisons?

  • Jamiles Lartey:

    The efforts have been fairly scattershot. There have been attempts in some places to let out people who were nearing the end of their sentences, people deemed not a threat to the community, older incarcerated people. There have been some efforts to try to be creative with space and find ways to allow more social distancing than would otherwise be possible in prisons.

    But, you know, as Director Peters mentioned, it is not a system that was broadly designed with public health in mind and not a system that was– that was designed to allow for things like social distancing, for, you know, the kind of overzealous washing of hands and protecting your personal air. I mean, that's just it– the two are just a little bit incompatible.

  • Zachary Green:

    So, Director Peters, you serve on the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. When and how does the Commission recommend distributing a vaccine once it comes out to incarcerated populations?

  • Colette Peters:

    Our final recommendations from the Commission on COVID will be finalized and rolled out this Monday. But I can tell you, in addition to prioritizing the nation's over 400,000 correctional officers and corrections professionals for the vaccine, we are recommending that the adults who are in custody also are prioritized in the 1B category. That recommendation really focuses on our prisons similarly to hospitals.

    And as was just mentioned, we have, unfortunately, many vulnerable people who are incarcerated. In Oregon, we have the fourth largest elderly population incarcerated in the country. And with that comes chronic disease. These individuals often are 10 years older biologically than their chronological age because of lack of preventative care, lifestyle choices, etc. And so these really are some of our most vulnerable people in the United States.

  • Zachary Green:

    Jamiles, you've been writing about this. How are states prioritizing the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to jails and prisons? Are there any states that are planning on getting a vaccine to incarcerated people early?

  • Jamiles Lartey:

    Yeah, in an analysis compiled by both the COVID Prison Project and my publication, The Marshall Project, we found that in at least six states, incarcerated people will be among the Phase 1 recipients of the vaccine and that in many more they were included in Phase 2 of generally three phases, with Phase 3 being kind of the "all the rest."

    Most states have looked at incarcerated folks in that — in that stage B of after health care workers and before the — the general public in that — in that phase that includes essential workers and people with underlying health conditions in the general population.

  • Zachary Green:

    Director Peters, can you tell us where do incarcerated people fall in order of priority in Oregon's distribution plan?

  • Colette Peters:

    Yeah, I'm pleased to share that they are in the Category 1B. They have been approved for prioritization. And so we will begin the planning for that vaccination, both for our corrections professionals and the adults in custody.

    I think it's important for people to understand that while we have engaged in mass incarceration, these are our community members. These are our brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles who have been incarcerated. And over 95 percent of them are coming back to our communities. And do you want them coming back, having felt cared for during the midst of a pandemic or not? I know what kind of neighbor I want. I want one that feels like they were cared for, both from a public safety perspective and a public health perspective during their incarceration.

  • Jamiles Lartey:

    Research has also shown that beyond the obvious risk to the people who live there, prisons and jails and detention centers can and will and, we believe, have served to incubate and seed the virus back into the general community since employees, as we discussed, move — move between the institutions and their homes.

    So even if you are controlling the pandemic in the broader society, if you have outbreaks roiling and going unchecked in these in these facilities, that will — that will extend the pandemic and prevent us from getting it under control in a public health sense.

  • Zachary Green:

    Collette Peters, Director of Oregon's Department of Corrections and Jamiles Lartey of The Marshall Project, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Jamiles Lartey:

    Thanks for having us.

  • Colette Peters:

    Thank you.

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