Jail, Prison Populations Must be Among First to Get COVID-19 Vaccine: Advocacy Groups

Dozens of legal and community advocacy groups signed an open letter Monday urging the Illinois Department of Public Health to prioritize incarcerated individuals and staff working in jails and prisons in its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

More than 60 organizations signed the letter, which was sent to IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike, pleading with the department to include those in jails and prisons among the first groups to be immunized.

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“Across the United States and specifically in Illinois, data has shown that incarcerated individuals are among the populations most vulnerable to be infected with and die from COVID-19,” the letter states. “We ask that IDPH acknowledge the high risk of COVID-19 exposure for people living in all forms of state custody and the staff who work with them and prioritize them for vaccinations.”

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center — one of the groups that signed the letter — said that from March until August this year, there had been 368 coronavirus cases within the Illinois Department of Corrections.

As of Monday, there are now more than 6,000 detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19, including nearly 1,200 who currently have the virus.

Mills said the groups have three basic demands: that prisoners not be discriminated against or excluded from the vaccine rollout; that jails and prisons be recognized as congregate settings and given the highest vaccine priority; and that jail and prison staff not be prioritized over detainees and prisoners.

“Unlike the rest of the world, prisons have total control over who comes in and out of the prisons. They could have stopped the introduction (of COVID-19 into those facilities) entirely. They chose not to do that,” Mills said during a Facebook Live event Monday. “Well now there’s a second chance. Now we have a vaccine coming out, but the question is: Will prisoners again be forgotten or will this time prisoners actually be prioritized so we can stop this spread of COVID within the prison systems?”

Earlier this month, the union representing some 3,000 corrections officers at the Cook County Jail demanded its members be at the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccines. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office also said it has been urging public health officials for months to ensure corrections officers are among the first to receive vaccinations.

Since the pandemic began, more than 1,150 detainees at the jail have tested positive for the coronavirus. Earlier this month, the number of active positive cases at the jail actually exceeded the peak from the initial outbreak in the spring, but that figure has declined in recent days.

At the jail, eight detainees, four corrections officers and one sheriff’s deputy have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

According to the letter, six states have already included incarcerated populations among the first groups to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. IDPH’s plan, released earlier this month, does not yet have a designation for when those groups could begin getting vaccines.

Given what they call Illinois’ “particularly dangerous experience” with coronavirus outbreaks in jails and prisons, the organizations claim it’s vital for state leaders to update that plan to include these groups in the first possible phase of vaccinations.

“Vaccinations of staff will not be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 in correctional  facilities,” the letter states. “COVID-19 outbreaks are currently raging through our prisons and jails; it is imperative as a matter of fundamental human rights that we protect the lives of vulnerable individuals, whom the state has sentenced to serve time in these facilities, by offering them the option of COVID-19 vaccination as soon as possible.”

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

Note: This story was originally published Dec. 21, 2020. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” conversation with Jenny Vollen-Katz, executive director of John Howard Association; and Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

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