Colorado has no plan for vaccinating its prison population

The updated vaccine rollout plan announced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) includes no provisions for vaccinating the state’s COVID-19-vulnerable prison population. Gov. Jared Polis’s decision to not include inmates in the plan is a departure from CDPHE’s original rollout plan, which placed them in the Phase 2 priority level.


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Colorado is one out of 11 states that does not include prisoners in its vaccine rollout plan. Incarceration rates in Colorado are higher than those of Canada, France and the United Kingdom combined. With significant outbreaks occurring in prisons in Colorado and across the country, many are demanding that Gov. Jared Polis implement these measures for the safety of its incarcerated population and prison staff.

According to the Marshall Project, one in five prisoners in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19. According to Jesse Paul at the Colorado Sun, 24 Colorado prisoners have died from COVID-19 so far. He also says more than 7,000 prisoners have tested positive since the pandemic began.

“Twenty-four people who should still be alive today have died in Colorado prisons,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said in a tweet. “This pandemic has been uniquely horrible for medically vulnerable and elderly people in prisons who are now potentially serving death sentences in a state that abolished the death penalty.”

Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, believes Polis should honor criminal justice reform promises he made in the past.

“We have a lot of elected leaders around this country who campaigned on criminal justice reform, including Gov. Polis in Colorado, who said some very ambitious things when he was elected about the change that he wanted to make and the legacy that he wanted to leave when it came to criminal justice reform,” Bertram said. “We’re seeing a governor who got elected and made promises to instill criminal justice reform, a governor who belongs to a party that claims to be pro-science, adopt a policy that is anti-science and cruel to incarcerated people.”

As the national debate concerning if and how incarcerated people should be vaccinated continues, tough-on-crime voices were likely a reason that Polis has not included prison populations in the state’s rollout plan, according to Bertram.

Bertram says the U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately imprisons people of color and people in poverty. These same groups of people are among the most likely to contract COVID-19, she said. According to her, many prisons serve as “nursing homes” given that they contain high elderly populations who are also susceptible to COVID-19.

Incarceration status should not be a factor in vaccine distribution because there are many vulnerable individuals in crowded prisons.

“We have a rising number of people in prisons who are over the age of 55,” she said. “We have rising numbers of people who have pre-existing conditions, which would make it very dangerous for them to get this virus. If you would be prioritized for getting the vaccine were you not incarcerated, you should be prioritized for getting the vaccine even if you are incarcerated.”

Advocates of giving vaccines to prisoners should speak out and tell their elected leaders they will not support them if they continue to neglect these individuals, Bertram said.

“The voices who are in support of treating incarcerated people fairly need to be just as loud, or louder, as the people who are saying ‘I can’t believe someone who committed a crime is going to get the vaccine early.’”