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Incarcerated people should be ‘first in line’ to receive COVID-19 vaccine, experts say

Prisons and jails in the United States have been among the worst COVID-19 hotspots, and therefore, those who remain incarcerated should be “first in line” to receive the vaccine, say two Northwestern University experts.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending health care workers and long-term care facility residents be among the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, those who work on behalf of people who remain incarcerated argue that failures to prioritize the vaccine for people in custody may run afoul of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Northwestern professors Sheila Bedi and Jennifer Lackey are available for comment.

Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic, is an expert in civil rights and civil litigation. Bedi litigates civil rights claims on behalf of people who have endured police violence and abusive prison conditions. She can be reached at sheila.bedi@law.northwestern.edu.  

Quote from Professor Bedi 
“People living behind bars are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19. One study found that incarcerated people are 300% more likely to die if they contract COVID-19. The vast majority of those in custody can be released to their home communities with no adverse effect on public safety. Prisons, jails and detention centers across the country must implement mass releases to respond to this crisis. Assuming the vaccine is safe and that those who suffer any adverse side effects can access medical care, those who remain incarcerated should be first in line to receive the vaccine. Given what we know about the risks of COVID-19 behind bars, failures to prioritize the vaccine for people in custody may run afoul of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”  

Jennifer Lackey is the director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program and the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern. Her recent research focuses on issues involving the rationality of punishment, credibility and false confessions, the epistemology of groups and disagreement. She also regularly teaches college-level courses at Stateville Correctional Center and in Division 10 of the Cook County Department of Corrections. She can be reached at j-lackey@northwestern.edu.

Quote from Professor Lackey
“People who are incarcerated should be among the first Americans to receive the new COVID-19 vaccine. Along a multitude of dimensions, they are some of the most vulnerable members of our nation: They live in extremely close proximity to one another with a complete inability to practice social distancing, often in overcrowded facilities with limited access to PPE and hygiene products. In addition, at least 40% of people incarcerated in the United States suffer from a chronic health condition, and health care in prisons is frequently found to be inadequate at best. It is then, no surprise, that prisons and jails in the United States have been among the worst COVID-19 hotspots, with the virus ravaging the incarcerated population. 

“This is nothing short of an urgent humanitarian crisis. As the United Nations makes clear, the State bears a heightened duty of care to those whom it detains because incarceration causes a heightened degree of vulnerability. Prison sentences should not be death sentences, and so we need to take immediate measures to ensure that those who are incarcerated have access to the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available.”