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Virus rampant in prisons like mine – we need vaccine early

I have spent eight months watching my fellow prisoners inside a state penitentiary in Washington suffer from Covid-19. Now there is finally a vaccine on the horizon. Unfortunately, it may not get to many incarcerated people in time to save us.

Christopher Blackwell is incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, where he is serving a 45-year sentence. He is writing a book on solitary confinement

Those responsible for deciding the order in which people get the vaccine — chiefly members of a Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel and state officials — say their goal is to prioritise frontline healthcare workers and people especially likely to contract the virus and experience the worst outcomes, including nursing home residents.

The close quarters where prisoners live make us an extremely high-risk population, too, and the prison population is ageing. But because of social stigma, we've become an afterthought in many states, although a very few, including Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina, have placed us ahead of the healthy general population. The Federal Bureau of Prisons will get an early allotment of the vaccine, but the agency plans to give it to staff, not incarcerated people.

Prisoners lose their liberty — I am serving time for robbery and a murder I committed in my early twenties, something I regret every day and know I cannot change — but we have not been sentenced to suffer or die of a virus. If the standard for vaccine distribution involves helping the most vulnerable, as officials insist, then we ought to be near the top of the list.

A recent study found that prisoners were nearly four times as likely than the average citizen to get the coronavirus and — adjusting for age, sex and ethnicity — twice as likely to die of it. (The discrepancy was even higher earlier in the pandemic, narrowing only as the virus spread aggressively in the general population.) One of the largest coronavirus clusters of any kind occurred at Avenal State Prison, in California's San Joaquin Valley, with more than 2,800 infected incarcerated people. Nationally, there have been nearly 230,000 Covid cases in prisons, and more than 1,500 people have died, according to the Marshall Project, a non-profit criminal justice news outlet.

Recognising that the virus can rip through crowded prisons, governors and other officials have taken modest steps to shrink prison populations and reduce density: in April, in my state, the governor, Jay Inslee, ordered prisoners who had not committed violent crimes, and who were nearing the end of their sentences, to be released. Other governors have issued similar edicts, and several states have reduced jail populations by cutting or eliminating bail, among other measures. But many prisons were wildly overcrowded to begin with: Nebraska's were at 150 per cent capacity in July, for instance, when the state accelerated its parole programme.

Everything about prison life makes social distancing difficult, and protections are paltry. Masks are required, but the last time my unit received any was September 1. We've each gotten six masks during the entire pandemic. And while all prisoners are required to wear our ragged masks or risk getting an infraction, guards often wear theirs improperly. Our temperatures are taken twice daily, but that is an ineffectual measure against asymptomatic spread.

This past week, my unit entered its third quarantine since March, because two prisoners tested positive — meaning classes and other activities are cancelled. Still, to retrieve meals from the chow hall, which is closed for in-person eating, I must walk shoulder to shoulder with 20 to 50 other men up and down two stairwells that are about five feet across.

For half-hour a day, I am let out of my cell with 20 other prisoners to make a phone call. If I'm not lucky enough to be among the first in line for the ten phones, I stand and wait with the others in front of open-barred occupied cells. And when I do get to a phone, I put my face next to a receiver someone else has just used, with no cleaning between calls. (I've seen people take one of their socks off and put it over the receiver.) Alcohol-based hand sanitiser is banned in the prison, except for use by guards, as if the chance that someone might drink it for a buzz is a bigger risk than contracting the virus.

(Contacted by a Washington Post editor, Susan Biller, interim communications director for the Washington State Department of Corrections, disputed several of these assertions: she said that masks are available to prisoners on request, that guards can be disciplined if they wear masks improperly, that "cleaning and sanitation protocols" are in place for phones, and that alcohol-based hand sanitiser is offered to inmates "when soap and water are not readily available".)

We are sitting ducks, yet there's a strong bias against protecting us. After Colorado's health department put prisoners in the second of three tiers of vaccination priority — behind the highest-risk non-prisoners but ahead of free citizens with moderate or low risk — the governor, Jared Polis, blasted the idea: “There's no way it's going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven't committed any crime,” he said of the vaccine.

But leaving prisoners vulnerable also endangers the communities surrounding our facilities. Guards, medical staff and administrators who work in the prisons live in the surrounding towns; they can transport the virus in both directions.

Even if guards are prioritised to receive the vaccine, this should not comfort the communities near prisons. It’s not yet clear whether vaccines will prevent people who have been infected from spreading the virus. What’s more, I have heard a few guards — some of them vocal supporters of President Donald Trump — say they wouldn’t take a vaccine if it were offered. They say they don’t trust the approval process, which they think was rushed, or Washington State’s Democrat-led government. More than one has told me that Covid-19 is no worse than the common flu.

Regardless, prisoners should be vaccinated not just to protect nearby communities but for our own sake. The number of people behind bars in the United States is staggering, amounting to more than 1 per cent of all working-age adults. With 5 per cent of the world's population, we have 20 per cent of the prisoners. People of colour are especially susceptible to Covid-19, and they are disproportionately represented behind bars: 38.6 per cent of the prison population is black, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, compared with 13 per cent of the general population. Young people tend to fare better with the virus than older Americans, but nearly 20 per cent of all prisoners are older than 50, a result of decades of "tough on crime" legislation.

Just last month, a 62-year-old friend of mine, Michael Cornethan — we called him "Cornbread" — died a painful but very preventable death. He was a father, a leader within the prison community, a proud black man and a confidante to many. I met him in the correctional facility where I am housed, but he was transferred to a different penitentiary two years ago and became the third incarcerated person in the Washington state system to die of Covid.

Lives such as Cornethan’s should not be seen as disposable. The United States could be a leader in the protocols for the distribution of the vaccine, showing the world that, despite our punitive policies, we can treat even prisoners equitably. After all, those of us behind bars may be segregated from the rest of America, but — without diminishing our crimes — we remain part of society. We are very vulnerable citizens.

Christopher Blackwell is incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, where he is serving a 45-year sentence. He is writing a book on solitary confinement

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Published December 12, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 11, 2020 at 6:21 pm)

Virus rampant in prisons like mine – we need vaccine early

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