Saferia Johnson, a mother of two young children, should still be alive. She contracted COVID-19 in federal prison, long after medical experts warned that jails, prisons and immigration detention centers would be tinderboxes for the virus. As a result of government neglect, more than 250,000 incarcerated people have contracted COVID-19. Johnson, and more than 1,600 others, have died.
Medical experts agree that incarcerated people should be prioritized for vaccines because they live in crowded quarters with no ability to social distance and have limited access to masks and hygiene products. Immunizing incarcerated people is not only a moral imperative, it's a practical necessity to stop the spread of COVID-19 in facilities and communities.
Staff, who cycle in and out of facilities each day, continue to bring COVID-19 into environments where people are powerless to protect themselves. Transmission works both ways. When outbreaks occur, staff spread the virus to their families and communities. One recent study found that 16% of COVID-19 cases in Chicago could be traced back to infections at the Cook County Jail.
Yet only a handful of states have included incarcerated people in plans for priority vaccine distribution. Documents suggest that the Federal Bureau of Prisons system plans to give initial vaccines to its staff, but not to incarcerated people, who are more vulnerable. This plan is unscientific — as well as cruel. Being accused or convicted of a criminal offense does not make a person disposable or less worthy of humane treatment.
The Vera Institute of Justice has documented the experiences of people who are enduring the pandemic from inside prisons, where the COVID-19 mortality rate is at least twice as high as in the general population. They speak of fear, neglect and powerlessness. Johnson’s friend, Chalana McFarland, recalled sharing a bar of soap with 135 women in the federal correctional facility where they were incarcerated. McFarland was among the lucky few who received medical release. COVID-19 struck the prison soon after. McFarland was devastated to learn her friend, who had been serving a 40-month sentence for tax fraud, had died.
“I don’t know what country in the world that tax fraud should turn into a death sentence,” McFarland said. “It sure shouldn’t be this one.”
McFarland suffers from survivors’ guilt, but national leaders are responsible for allowing the crisis of COVID-19 in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers to rage largely unchecked.
Now is the time to prevent further suffering. Government officials should follow the guidance of the American Medical Association and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and prioritize incarcerated people and people who work in carceral settings for COVID-19 vaccines.
Above all, the United States needs to stop incarcerating so many people in the first place. When the pandemic struck, the United States had 2.3 million people confined in unsafe conditions, a greater percentage of its population than any other country. We can keep people out of jail and allow people to return to their communities from prison by taking two steps:
- End cash bail. More than two-thirds of the 700,000 people in our nation’s jails are being held not because they have committed a crime, but because they are too poor to purchase their freedom through bail. Cash bail is unjust during normal times. During a pandemic, people are dying in jail as they await trial for minor offenses.
- Release vulnerable people. People who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, including pregnant women, the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, should be freed from incarceration through discretionary release or medical furloughs. People who are close to the ends of their sentences for minor crimes should also be released on humanitarian grounds.
Although Saferia Johnson had asthma and diabetes, her application for compassionate release from prison was denied. When she died at 36, her mother told her sons, ages four and seven, that their mother was needed in heaven. This tragedy was preventable. Federal, state and local officials need to act quickly and in accordance with science to keep the COVID-19 death toll behind bars and in our communities from rising ever higher.
Nick Turner is the Vera Institute of Justice's fifth president and director. Under his leadership, Vera is pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America's growing minority communities.