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States Across The U.S. Are Taking Different Approaches Toward Vaccinating Inmates

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Incarcerated people are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Since March, researchers say more than 1,600 people in jails and prisons have died of the disease, and tens of thousands have been infected. Some states have started to vaccinate people behind bars, while others have not. And we're going to look now at how this is playing out in three states. Allison Sherry is with Colorado Public Radio, and she joins us from Denver. Conrad Wilson is with Oregon Public Broadcasting, and he's in Portland. And joining us from Boston is Deb Becker with WBUR.

Good to have all three of you here.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Hi.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: Hi.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Deb, I want to start with you in Massachusetts. Your state included prisoners in the first phase of its COVID-19 vaccine plan. What was the rationale for that?

BECKER: Well, we know that the virus transmits quickly in correctional settings. And the risk of contracting the virus and dying from it are much higher inside prisons and jails compared with outside. So in deciding to vaccinate prisoners, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said that correctional settings are no different from other congregate living situations, such as shelters and group homes, where people are living in close quarters and the virus can easily spread. So here's what he said last month when he explained why prisoners were included in the first phase.

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CHARLES BAKER: Congregate facilities are congregate facilities. And we need to make sure that the people who work there and the people who live there - because of the possibility of outbreak, that that should be a place where we focus early in this exercise.

BECKER: The governor says it's strong public health policy because it's not just vaccinating prisoners. Workers are getting the vaccine, too. And he pointed out there are lawyers who go in and out of prisons and jails, medical workers, visitors, those who provide programming. So the state's thinking is that offering vaccines in correctional settings will help prevent the spread in the community.

SHAPIRO: And so far, how is the vaccine rollout going in jails and prisons in Massachusetts?

BECKER: Officials say it's going smoothly, but it appears that a lot of people are not taking it. Court documents in particular show that about a third of prisoners and more than half of prison workers have not received the vaccine. Now, that number does not include workers who may have been vaccinated elsewhere. So some correctional facilities are holding vaccine education sessions to encourage people to get the shot.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's turn now to Oregon. More than 40 prison inmates have died after testing positive for COVID-19 in that state. So Conrad, give us a sense of what's happening with vaccines there now.

WILSON: Well, almost 7,000 inmates have been vaccinated. That's more than half of the state's prison population. Many of those inmates have received their second dose, prison officials say. But vaccinating this many inmates this soon wasn't something Oregon health officials were willing to do on their own. It took litigation from a group of inmates and an order from a federal judge here in Portland.

Basically, the inmates argued Oregon's vaccination plan didn't treat them like others living in nursing homes and other congregate care facilities where the vaccine has been administered. Here's State Representative Janelle Bynum. She's a Democrat and chairs the Oregon House Judiciary Committee.

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JANELLE BYNUM: I didn't understand how our adults in custody were any different from any other group in a congregate care setting. And I certainly don't believe that a prison sentence is a death sentence.

WILSON: The judge's ruling at the beginning of this month forced the state to offer inmates vaccines immediately. So that's why about half of all prison inmates have been vaccinated.

SHERRY: Let me jump in here. This is Allison in Denver. Advocates here wish that that would have happened in Colorado. That court ruling Conrad was just talking about in Oregon is something lawyers here have been trying to use as a tool to get inmates vaccines.

SHAPIRO: And I know there's been a back and forth over this in Colorado. Allison, tell us more about what's been happening there.

SHERRY: Yeah. Democratic Governor Jared Polis hasn't prioritized inmates at all. Initially, he did in one of the early plans but then was called out for that by some prominent conservatives. You know, people saying, do you want the murderer to get the vaccine before your next-door neighbor? And he was apparently sensitive to that. And so he removed prisoners from the list and put them in just the regular population.

So in other words, he's making no distinction that these people are in a group setting. A 70-year-old prisoner would be prioritized like a 70-year-old non-prisoner and so on. So the majority of prisoners are not being prioritized. I will note that prison staff has been prioritized and those vaccines are being administered now.

SHAPIRO: So tell us more about the pressure that Colorado's governor has been under.

SHERRY: Well, he's gotten a lot of pushback for his decision to not prioritize inmates for vaccine - for getting a vaccine. And he's also been sued. He has fought that lawsuit successfully so far. Rebecca Wallace is an ACLU lawyer. She says public health officials have been universal in saying that people in group settings should be prioritized for a vaccine.

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REBECCA WALLACE: And Governor Polis has actually not only ignored that guidance, but rejected that guidance from his own Colorado Department of Public Health. And I think it really stands out because he's such a data-driven individual in his other decisions.

SHAPIRO: You know, I'm curious. Early in the pandemic, there was pressure to release inmates to create social distance inside facilities that were often crowded. Have vaccination efforts changed those conversations in the states that you're all in?

BECKER: Well, in Massachusetts, despite the early vaccination of prisoners, there's been little movement to release people. The fight over that continues mostly through litigation. There are pending lawsuits. But with so many prisoners getting vaccinated now, it does weaken the argument for big releases.

SHERRY: Yeah. And in Colorado, interestingly, the state's prison population has gone down by a few thousand people since the start of the pandemic, but state officials attribute that almost 100% to the fact that there were no criminal jury trials last year at all in 2020. So there's this massive backlog in the state's criminal justice system.

SHAPIRO: So you've brought us three very different stories about policies around vaccinating incarcerated people in three states that are very different across the country. How does this fit in with what we are seeing across the U.S. nationally - Conrad?

WILSON: Well, every state is really dealing with this a little bit differently. And, you know, really, this is another symptom showing a lack of a national strategy despite the risks. It's another way of, you know, also showing how inmates are marginalized by society. And this isn't just about those who are incarcerated. In a recent report by the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative, researchers found that there were more new cases in counties that had large incarcerated populations.

SHAPIRO: That is Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting, along with Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radio and Deb Becker of WBUR in Boston.

Thanks to all three of you. Good to have you with us.

WILSON: You're welcome.

SHERRY: Any time, Ari.

BECKER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.