MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Wash. — Recently, Christopher Blackwell, one of my incarcerated neighbors in the Washington State Reformatory, and I wrote separate articles about whether or not prisoners will be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine. This morning that question was answered: I woke up to a memo posted on a kiosk in my living unit, which alerted those of us locked inside here that two Washington state facilities began vaccinating imprisoned individuals and staff.
The Department of Corrections’ priority list is supposedly based on recommendations for phase 1a vaccine prioritization that were handed down by both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (well, its Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices, to be precise) and the Washington State Department of Health. Those recommendations prioritize staff and prisoners working and living in certain units that have experienced massive outbreaks, housed quarantined individuals, or been deemed long-term care facilities.
When I told one of my neighbors, he replied, “Just in time, huh?”
Don’t worry, it also took me a few seconds to recognize the sarcasm.
Though a step in the right direction, the problem with this system of distribution is it uses a separate model for us prisoners than the one given to the rest of the country.
Implementing it on a micro level and only in certain institutions negates the fact that prisons themselves are long-term care facilities.
Close quarters, unhygienic living conditions, and an emphasis on safety over health have led to outbreaks in Washington state correctional centers that far overshadow those that have plagued nursing homes or cruise ships.
Airway Heights Corrections Center — which is about five hours east of us; just a tad over 30 minutes from Idaho — has had more than 1,300 cases. That’s more than half of its population.
Fortunately, it’s one of the facilities receiving vaccinations, but should we vaccinate those who have COVID-19 and forget those who don’t?
However, if vaccination is a preventative measure — one being distributed to the most vulnerable factions of American society — a simple glance at the number of infections happening in prisons should make a case for why their entire populations should be prioritized. Any other conclusion, it seems to me — from my limited, though utterly unsettling view from here on the inside — could only be drawn from a belief that not all human life is equal.
Most of us weren’t given life sentences by the criminal justice system, but, even with the vaccines being deployed, there’s a growing fear in here — and in prisons across the nation — that the correctional system views us as dead already.