A protester waves a "Black Lives Matter" flag across the street during the demonstration. Representatives from various organizations, including Free the People Roc and HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long-Term), traveled to Elmira correctional facility from across the state to protest the conditions inmates were exposed to during the Covid-19 pandemic. Elmira, New York State Prison has seen a rash of coronavirus cases.
Kit MacAvoy | SOPA pictures | LightRocket via Getty Images
LONDON – The US and UK have already started rolling out their national coronavirus vaccination programs to help contain the spread of the virus. However, health professionals and activists are deeply concerned about the notable lack of prison populations in existing guidelines.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet made decisions about prisoners regarding access to vaccines, although it is believed that prison staff could be included in the second phase of the allocation. The US CDC was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
In the UK, the Joint Vaccination and Immunization Committee has stated that the top priority of the Covid-19 vaccination program should be to prevent death and help maintain health and welfare systems.
The JCVI guidelines do not specifically mention prisons, but it is assumed that the allocation plans will be applied in a manner similar to those in detention.
Both countries have been administering the first vaccinations with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine outside of the trial conditions in the past few days, raising hopes that mass adoption of safe and effective vaccines could end the coronavirus pandemic soon.
With coronavirus cases and related deaths continuing to surge, experts are questioning the ethics of how governments plan to distribute the first vaccines.
"We face a major dilemma here," said DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national judiciary reform organization trying to cut the US prison population in half.
Speaking at a webinar at Chatham House earlier this month, Hoskins said people incarcerated are "still fewer than people … and that's how we react when we talk about vaccine access."
Health officials have for years warned of the dangers of epidemics for detainees, arguing that people are unable to maintain a safe physical distance in correctional facilities due to their confinement in small common areas.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned America's prisons and prisons into Covid hotspots. People in prison are almost four times more likely to be infected than people in the general population – and twice as likely to die, according to a study by a criminal justice commission.
If the biggest trouble spots for Covid are prisons, doesn't it make sense to vaccinate everyone from guards to prisoners?
Judicial Reform Lawyer
"From my point of view and the information we have, we need to consider where prisoners fit in relation to other high-risk groups in terms of their risk. At first glance, prisoners would be at high risk for several reasons." Seena Fazel, Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, said in a report published Dec. 12 in The Lancet Medical Journal.
Fazel said prisoners were at high risk of contracting the coronavirus due to the underlying chronic medical conditions, age and the environment. He cited a systematic review of prison settings by his team that identified correctional facilities as high risk for infectious disease transmission with significant challenges in managing outbreaks.
"Our research suggests that people in prison should be among the first groups to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves from infection and prevent the disease from spreading further," he said.
A view of a new emergency care facility being built to treat COVID-19 infected inmates at San Quentin State Prison on July 8th, 2020 in San Quentin, California.
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The CDC has recommended that people with an increased risk of infection and mortality for the coronavirus be vaccinated early. However, federal officials say correctional staff should be given priority access to a vaccine, but have not yet spoken out in favor of prisoners being given the same allocation.
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine, said in the report released by The Lancet that he disagreed with plans to vaccinate prison staff only.
"If you are at risk and older or sick, you should just get vaccinated. If you are in a state where you cannot isolate yourself, you should get vaccinated. I see no reason to distinguish them."
"If the biggest trouble spots for Covid are prisons, doesn't it make sense to vaccinate everyone from guards to prisoners?" said Ashish Prashar, a judicial reform attorney and senior director of global communications for Publicis.
Speaking at the webinar at Chatham House on December 4th, Prashar said, "All the guards, all health workers, all people going to and out of jail are spreading it to society. Wouldn't you start on? Hotspots and stop them ? And take care of these people first? "
A nurse holds a sign during a protest by the nurses at Rikers Island Prison about the conditions and threat of the coronavirus on May 7, 2020 in New York City.
Giles Clarke | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Mass incarceration in the United States does not affect all communities equally, as African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated in US correctional facilities.
In addition to racial disparities within the U.S. criminal justice system, an updated CDC report earlier this month found that Hispanics and Black Americans, age-adjusted, were nearly three times more likely to die of complications from the coronavirus than white Americans.
"Half a million people haven't been convicted of a crime, but we've stolen their freedom," said Celia Ouellette, founder and executive director of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, a nonprofit group that works to improve criminal justice systems and security Imprisonment. Her comments related to those in the US who have not been convicted of a crime but are being held in prisons.
"So there is a moral obligation to treat these people the same as the surrounding community – or possibly better because they do not have the same access as the surrounding communities."
"We need to stop thinking of inmate populations as a category of people and see them as people, as we do in the prisons and jail communities," Ouellette said at the same webinar at Chatham House.