As states begin to roll out their plans for COVID-19 vaccination, the limited number of doses have prompted tough public conversations about how to prioritize vulnerable populations. Most states agree that health care workers, nursing home residents, and people with high-risk comorbidities should be at the top of the list. But another vulnerable population has proved more controversial: incarcerated people.
Medical and public health experts, including the American Medical Association, agree that incarcerated people face tremendous danger from the virus, given that social distancing in America’s overcrowded prisons is impossible. Prisoners also face inadequate testing, a shortage of soap and masks, and substandard health care. As a result, the virus has already spread widely in prisons. The Marshall Project reported that, as of December 8, at least 249,883 people in American prisons had tested positive, a 10 percent increase over the past week, including 1,657 fatalities. Contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated has proven deadly, with rates of prison cases and deaths at 3.7 and two times national levels, respectively. As incarcerated writer Christopher Blackwell wrote for the Washington Post, “we are sitting ducks.”
The response of many facilities has been to go on lockdown, restricting important programs and keeping residents inside cells. Some prisons have even used solitary confinement as a method of quarantining. These practices have alarmed reform advocates and have made life all the more difficult for those inside prison walls. Byron Johnson, a Baylor University sociologist and leading scholar of faith-based correctional programs, told me that the past nine months have been “devastating” for the prison initiatives that depend on volunteer efforts: “The pandemic has essentially killed many educational, vocational, and religious programs.”
The spread among prison populations also has put correctional officers and their families at high risk (with more than 62,171 prison staff testing positive, and 108 deaths reported). And these infections of staff present ongoing danger to the communities where prisons are located.
Despite experts’ warnings about the dangers of COVID-19 in confinement, many Americans resist the idea that prisoners should be at the top of the vaccination lists. According to analysis from the COVID Prison Project, 24 states have listed prisoners in the second tier of priority for the vaccine. Twelve states did not even mention prisoners in their plans. And many states, as the Prison Policy Initiative has pointed out, have put forward plans for vaccination that are “unclear and unspecific” regarding incarcerated people, or have neglected to detail plans for county jails alongside state prisons.
Prioritization—or even mention—of concern for prisoner health is a political liability. Colorado, for example, had previously announced plans to include prisoners among the top priority vaccine recipients. But after one Colorado Republican district attorney blasted the state’s draft plan as prioritizing “murderers, rapists, and child molesters” over law-abiding citizens who need the vaccine, Democratic Governor Jared Polis walked back the proposal, saying, “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.” The new Colorado plan, released this past Wednesday, moved prisoners down the priority list, despite continued deadly outbreaks in the state’s facilities.
Reluctance to prioritize the health and well-being of incarcerated people has a long history in this country. Many Americans have seen mass incarceration as an acceptable policy outcome despite its disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color. Our political and cultural consensus has also fostered complacency concerning the poor conditions of prisons. Incarcerated people are routinely forced into inhumane living environments and face the threat of violence. COVID-19’s ravaging of prison populations is but a symptom of this deeper disease.
Priority vaccination for prisoners is an opportunity to challenge the punitive status quo. Karen Swanson, director of Wheaton College’s Institute for Prison Ministries, believes Christians should be at the forefront of advocating for prisoners’ right to the vaccine. She references Proverbs 31:8: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
The vast majority of American Christians believe that prison conditions should be “safe and humane.” My own research has also shown how evangelicals have historically exhibited a great deal of concern for incarcerated people, even as they have struggled to resist the pull of law-and-order politics. The question of prioritizing prisoner vaccinations is a clear opportunity for Christians, whatever our political persuasions or views of criminal justice, to practice what we preach.
This is undoubtedly a political issue, but it does not have to be a partisan one. Republican and Democratic politicians alike have fallen prey to the temptation of punitive politics, and leaders of both conservative and liberal persuasions have maintained our nation’s carceral state. Christians, therefore, have a unique opportunity in this moment for public witness above the partisan fray.
We can write and call elected leaders in our states on behalf of prisoners, asking them to prioritize prisoners’ early vaccination alongside other vulnerable populations in congregate settings, such as nursing homes and homeless shelters. For states that have already pledged prioritization of prisoners for vaccination, Christians can communicate their support to policymakers, who will likely receive pushback for this decision.
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has already been advocating on behalf of prisoners during the pandemic, urging Congress to expand eligibility of compassionate release of federal prisoners. On the matter of vaccination, Galen Carey, the NAE vice president of government relations, told me that the organization believes that “those who remain behind bars, and the staff who serve them, should be among priority populations in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.”
The public health stakes are high, but so are those of faithful Christian discipleship. For Carey, “Jesus said that those who do not care for the needy and the imprisoned demonstrate by such lack of action that they are not his followers.”
If our leaders and fellow citizens throughout the nation hear Christians speak boldly on this issue, we might begin rebuilding the public trust lost over the past few years amid political rancor. But more importantly, by advocating for priority vaccination for those who are most at risk, we might save the lives of our fellow citizens and fellow bearers of the image of God.
Aaron Griffith is a history professor at Sattler College and the author of God’s Law and Order.