Mar 1, 2021 - Health

Most states aren't prioritizing prisons for COVID vaccines

Illustration of a vaccine syringe behind bars

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Most states have not made much of their incarcerated populations eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The big picture: Jails and prisons have seen big outbreaks and a higher death rate than the general public, but with supplies still limited, most governors aren't putting prisoners at the top of the list for vaccines.

Where it stands: 15 states are currently rolling out vaccine to inmates, according to February data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  • Another 15 states are allowing vaccination of staff, but not inmates.

By the numbers: Over the course of the pandemic, prisons have seen roughly 380,000 cases and 2,500 deaths, according to The Marshall Project. Cases and deaths among staff likely are severely undercounted.

  • Around 28% of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have tested positive for the virus, compared to about 9% of the total U.S. population, per KFF.
  • In most states, the death rate among prisoners is higher than the overall COVID death rate.

The state of play: California, which has had the highest cases and deaths from this population next to federal prisons, has vaccinated the most people than any state within its correctional system — nearly 40%. Virginia and Massachusetts follow.

  • Governors in several states have opened vaccinations to prisoners who are over 70 or who have underlying health conditions — the same criteria they've used outside of prisons.

The other side: In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis reversed the health department's plan to put incarcerated people ahead of elderly and those with chronic conditions, saying at a press conference that the vaccine won't "go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven't committed any crime."

Yes, but: In Oregon, a federal judge ruled that putting inmates further down the state's vaccination list violated their constitutional rights, saying "the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in its custody," and they are now ahead of seniors, CNN reports.

Go deeper