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Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations to the state’s prison population was met with headlines that appeared he was putting healthy, young inmates in front of Illinois’ elderly population.
Criminal justice advocates say there’s more to it.
Since the demand for vaccinations is greater than supply, the moral dilemma of how the state’s priorities are arranged has become an ethical conversation that’s literally a life-or-death situation for some.
Illinois is one of eight states that has placed its incarcerated population in the first tier of COVID-19 vaccination priorities, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative. The decision was met with criticism, saying Illinois’ 1.9 million residents over the age of 65 are far more likely to die from infection, but there’s some nuance to vaccinations going to the state’s prison population that’s been largely omitted.
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“Somebody’s just trying to sell papers,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “It’s an attempt to dehumanize prisoners and pretend that they’re not part of our community.”
Mills pointed out that, like cruise ships and long-term-care facilities, COVID-19 can spread through a prison population packed in together without space to keep the airborne virus from spreading.
As of the week ending Jan. 12, 9,569 prisoners in non-federal prisons in Illinois had been infected with COVID-19, that’s a rate of 2,589 infections per 10,000 prisoners. That’s according to the Marshall Project. Illinois’ prison population, as of Dec. 31, was just over 29,100.
Those prisoners, possibly still contagious, are then released into Illinois’ communities.
On any given day, Mills said that every week, approximately 500 prisoners are released back to the community. Every day, over 1,000 people (including guards, medical personnel, and other staff) come in and out of Illinois prisons.
“What happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison,” he said. A June University of Chicago study found 16% of all COVID-19 cases in Cook County were tied back to infections in the jail.
Still, the CDC estimates nearly 75% of all COVID-19 deaths are from people age 65 and up.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, nearly 70,000 cases among long-term-care facilities and staff have led to nearly 7,000 deaths.
Though a smaller number, Mills said many prisoners are caretakers and medical staffers for prison infirmaries and were being moved further down the priority list by being categorized with others instead of healthcare workers.