Gov. Polis says Colorado prisoners shouldn’t get COVID-19 vaccine before free people
Gov. Jared Polis said he believes incarcerated people, who’ve been subject to many of Colorado’s most severe coronavirus outbreaks, should not receive access to upcoming vaccines ahead of free people.
It’s a position he’s stated twice in the last week, and that seems to go against the vaccine distribution plan Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment published weeks ago. That framework puts incarcerated people at the top of Phase 2 (of three) — below “critical workforce” and “highest-risk individuals,” but ahead of the general public and people deemed high-risk but not “highest-risk,” such as adults 65 and older or adults with diabetes and other COVID-19 co-morbidities.
During a joint press conference with Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday, Polis was asked by a Fox News reporter “why those who are incarcerated may get access before those 65 and older or who have high risk condition.” The reporter also asked Polis, a Democrat, to respond to a Denver Post column by the Republican District Attorney George Brauchler of the 18th Judicial District. In that column, Brauchler took issue with the state’s distribution plan for incarcerated people and wrote, “What in the hell is Gov. Polis doing?”
“That won’t happen. There’s no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population,” Polis told the reporter. “Now, as we (vaccinate people) 65 and up, I would think that would include prisoners that are in that category, but the vast majority of people 65 and up are free. It’ll first go to people in nursing homes, veterans’ facilities, front-line workers.
“So, there’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners” — he chuckled as he said the word “prisoners” — “before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime. That’s obvious, so those are just false. Clearly the actual proposal on how we’re going to do it will be amended. It’ll be released next week, kind of the way we’re going to look at that. I think we’re awaiting some word from the CDC.”
At a separate press conference last week, Polis was asked a question in Spanish about vaccine prioritization, to which he responded, in part, “Personas libres deben recibirlo antes de personas en carceles.” The statement translates to mean that free people should get the vaccine before incarcerated people.
The incarcerated have consistently been among the state’s most vulnerable people in terms of risk of catching the virus. Outbreak numbers in jails and prisons have mostly dwarfed those in other settings — that’s been true nationally, not just in Colorado — and some of the worst of these outbreaks have come in recent weeks. In mid-November, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reported that the jail in Colorado Springs, which has a capacity of about 1,200, had seen close to 1,000 positive COVID-19 cases at one time.
The vast majority were among inmates, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime, and 73 were among staff members. One of the biggest concerns for health officials regarding outbreaks among incarcerated people is that staff members, unlike longer-term inmates, can easily transmit the disease into their communities.
Polis has previously said jails and prisons aren’t a COVID-19 concern on their own, so much as congregate living is a concern in general. But the state’s data indicates that jails and prisons are in a uniquely dangerous spot, in large part because they have much larger populations than, say, dormitories or nursing homes. Thirteen of the 14 settings with at least 100 residents confirmed to be positive for the virus, as of Nov. 25, were jails and prisons, according to state data. (The 14th is a homeless shelter in Denver.) Poor people and people of color are vastly overrepresented in Colorado jails and prisons.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Corrections reported the total COVID-19 death toll among Colorado prisoners now stands at 11. Four of those 11 have been reported in the last week alone.
Given the data, The Denver Post followed up with the governor’s office to ask whether there is an epidemiological rationale for the governor’s position on vaccines for incarcerated people and where will those people fall on the revised priority list.
In a statement, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill did not directly answer either question.
“The Governor believes that no human being, including those in custody, should be denied the vaccine. So too, no prisoner should be placed ahead of others just because they are a prisoner,” Cahill wrote.
The governor’s position seems to run counter to the stated mission of Dean Williams, the Polis appointee and director of the Colorado DOC. Williams has often said he believes that the state should work to make prison less punitive — that is, while prison itself is a punishment, he believes that prisoners should not be subjected to additional punishment once behind bars.
A spokesman for Williams declined to make him available for an interview Tuesday.
The governor’s remarks have drawn strong condemnation from criminal justice reform advocates. Tweeted the New York University professor Rachel Barkow, “Polis campaigned on a ‘progressive’ vision. But this rhetoric is as regressive as can be. People in prisons are people, and prisons and jails are COVID hot spots. No one’s sentence includes COVID & vaccines aren’t allocated based on a governor’s (flawed) moral compass.”
Rebecca Wallace, an attorney with the ACLU of Colorado, told The Post she senses “that in all areas except corrections, Gov. Polis crafts his COVID-19 policies based on expert public health guidance.” She said she was disappointed to see Polis “throw in his hat in the ring with punishment-oriented George Brauchler” rather than with his own health department.
Said Wallace, “In promising to vaccinate free Coloradans before incarcerated ones, Gov. Polis puts politics above public health. Our jails and prisons host the largest outbreaks in the state, leaving not only incarcerated people, but staff and the surrounding communities at grave risk.”
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