Prisoners get high priority for vaccine
Advocates hail decision but continue to press for releases
ADVOCATES FOR THE 13,000 people incarcerated at state and county jails praised the Baker administration on Wednesday for deciding to give prisoners and prison officials early access to the COVID-19 vaccine, but said they would continue to press state officials to release inmates early.
“It is commendable that the governor recognizes that prisoners should be given priority for vaccines, both because they are more vulnerable and because large outbreaks in the prisons endanger the community as a whole,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.
But Matos said her organization will continue to press for early release of sentence prisoners though its lawsuit against the state. “We still have a long way to go before the danger of COVID in the prison system will be over,” she said.
“There is still an urgent need for DOC to take immediate action to reduce the prison population by using home confinement and other means in order to prevent more sickness, hospitalizations, and death.”
Dr. Paul Biddinger, chair of the vaccine advisory board and director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at Massachusetts General Brigham, said the panel felt strongly that people who live in congregate care settings, which are by definition high density places, should be a priority.
“We know [congregated care settings] are a documented risk factor, not just for single individuals, but by large populations being exposed to COVID and becoming ill at the same time,” he said.
“From an equity perspective, where people are at risk and together in the same situation, we felt it was really important to prioritize that group,” Biddinger added.
Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, said Biddinger is right but the Baker administration should also begin decarcerating the prisons. Hanora cited a letter signed by 176 public health and medical experts calling on Baker to decrease the number of inmates in jails – a number that is higher now than it was in April, when that letter was sent. Since then, the DOC has released only 31 sentenced prisoners, according to state data.
“It’s a moral imperative that Governor Baker both order releases of as many people as possible as soon as possible and ensure incarcerated people have immediate and consensual access to the vaccine,” said Hanora.
Over 4,400 prisoners have been released from county correctional facilities, mostly to home confinement with electronic ankle monitors, since the beginning of the pandemic. It is unclear how many of those were released as a result of an April Supreme Judicial Court decision, and how many had release dates already set.There continues to be surges in cases at county jails. In Essex County, 40 prisoners currently have COVID-19. The county says most are asymptomatic and testing is ongoing as needed. In Hampden County, 82 prisoners and 34 staff members had COVID-19 as of Friday. There were 13 cases at Suffolk County’s jail and House of Correction as of Thursday.
The Prisoners’ Legal Services lawsuit seeking to force the DOC to release sentenced prisoners to a home confinement program is pending. Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann is expected to rule on the case by next Friday.