Prisoners facing major virus risks are not at the top of the vaccination lists

DENVER (AP) – Amber Johnson is terrified that her 63-year-old father will get the corona virus. He has high blood pressure, asthma, and is pre-diabetic, and she is concerned that he is particularly vulnerable as a prisoner in Colorado, where outbreaks rage in prisons.

Prisons in the US have been hit hard by COVID-19. Social distance is virtually impossible behind bars: inmates sleep close by and share bathrooms. Masks, hygiene supplies and security protocols are often lacking, and many inmates have health problems that make them susceptible to the virus.

Johnson believes a vaccine is the only hope for her father, Ronald Johnson, who is serving time for theft, counterfeiting and drug possession.

But in Colorado and most other states, inmates are not in the front line for the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine now being distributed. Health workers and nursing home residents are getting the first wave of shots, and many argue that those who break the law – despite living in conditions that put them at risk – should not be a priority when many others are vulnerable.

‘To think of him who died in prison is a terrible thought because from what I’ve heard, if you have a loved one who dies in prison, you just get the remains in a box. They cremate them and send them home, ”said Amber Johnson. “You don’t have the option to sit next to them and hold their hand.”

Initially, Colorado had inmates in the second phase of vaccine distribution, spring-ready, behind health workers and first responders, but ahead of other adults over the age of 65 with health problems. Prisoners had to be treated like others in group housing, including homeless shelters and dormitories.

But a protest followed. Denver district attorney George Brauchler said the plan would have allowed two men convicted of killing the son of 66-year-old Senator Rhonda Fields to be vaccinated before her.

“The people who killed her son were more likely to get it,” Brauchler said.

The Democratic Jared Polis government last week bowed to criticism and updated its plan to prioritize age and health risks over where people live. Prison staff will still receive the vaccine in phase two, along with first responders.

“Whether you’re in prison or not, if you’re 67 years old or at risk, wherever you are, you can access the vaccine if 67-year-olds have access to vaccines,” Polis said.

Although Colorado has changed course, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, Utah, New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana, and Massachusetts have inmates who were the first to receive the vaccine this winter. Some states have also taken steps to reduce COVID-19 risks behind bars by early release of nonviolent offenders.

But even in states with the largest prison outbreaks, inmates often had no plans for early distribution of vaccines.

The five states with the highest rates of coronavirus in their prisons, according to data collected as part of a joint project of The Associated Press and The Marshall Project – Texas, California, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin – do not provide details on how they would prioritize inmates in their October draft reports to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Michigan has decided to treat inmates like everyone else, vaccinating them based on their age and health conditions rather than prioritizing them as a group. However, prison and prison personnel will be vaccinated along with other vital workers before people over 65 or 16- and 64-year-olds with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes that can worsen COVID-19, according to a state plan updated Sunday.

Wisconsin is still deciding which groups to inject after the first wave of vaccination. Texas will likely consider prisoners along with other vulnerable populations, but the plans are unclear.

Iowa, another state with a high infection rate in prisons, plans to put inmates and those living in state institutions for the disabled ahead of others, but behind health workers, nursing home residents and staff.

The federal prison system – one of the first government agencies to receive the vaccine – plans to administer the first vaccines to staff, not inmates, according to documents obtained by the AP.

The insecurity is heartbreaking for families of inmates. They implore state officials to consider the transmission risks behind bars. Medical experts have also suggested that prison living situations require higher priority.

“From a public health standpoint, it’s also very important because we’ve seen them be hot spots,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. And people come and get out of prison. There is no way to avoid that. ”

That includes officers, administrative personnel, attorneys, and medical and mental health professionals.

More than 249,000 inmates have tested positive and nearly 1,700 have died from COVID-19 nationwide. In a Colorado prison last week, nearly three-quarters of inmates contracted the virus.

Meanwhile, Colorado’s ACLU has been fighting for early release of some inmates to reduce their risk. Ronald Johnson served 22 years and was released on parole until 2027, but his daughter worries that that is still too far away.

Amber Johnson said her father is a nonviolent offender who has become sober, mentoring other inmates, helping in the prison church, and coordinating mental health courses. She says he deserves a chance to live – and for her that means a vaccine.

“The time is now,” said Johnson, who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “It has to be done urgently before someone else dies – and someone else will.”