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As virus spreads, prisoners worry they're not being considered in vaccine distribution plans

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Posted at 1:48 PM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 13:48:38-05

As thousands of Americans get the COVID-19 vaccine, prisoners are worried they are being overlooked, even though they live in environments prone to large outbreaks.

“I mean I’m sure everyone in here is worried about it,” said David Hurt, a 54-year-old inmate at the Mountain View Correctional Institute in North Carolina.

Hurt has three months left in his 22-year sentence before he can return to his wife and child, but as an immunocompromised man, he worries any contact with COVID-19 could be life-threatening.

“There’s nothing I can really do as far as controlling it goes,” said Hurt. “I’m definitely concerned as far as the environment is in here and how things are handled.”

According to the nonprofit COVID Prison Project, 14 states have listed incarcerated populations in their phase 1 vaccine distribution plans, 23 have them in phase two, and one has them in phase three. Meanwhile, 11 states have not included these populations in their distribution plans at all.

“There’s a very strong connection between what’s happening in these spaces and the rest of society,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, co-founder of COVID Prison Project. “Public health entities in the field of public health tend to think of correctional health as separate, as maybe not in their purview, and I think that needs changing.”

According to CDC data, COVID-19 transmission rates are four times higher in prisons than the general public.

Early in the pandemic, corrections and public health experts agreed that reducing prison populations was a good first step in reducing the virus’ spread. Federal and state governments worked to expand programs that allowed for early release or home confinement, but only a fraction of those requests have been granted.

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, our country’s prison population has risen since it was first reduced in Spring. On March 10, there were 134,117 inmates in our country’s prisons. By May 30, that number dipped to 80,279, but that number had grown to 104,983 by November 15.

“Facilities that have lower percent capacity, so less people in them, are less prone to outbreaks,” said Brinley-Rubinstein.

Some states have changed legislation as a way to expedite the release process for incarcerated individuals who qualify. In October, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed bill S2519, which allowed for the early release of people with less than a year left on their sentences.

Less than a month after the bill was signed, more than 2,000 people were released from state prisons in the state.