The matter of vaccine distribution is an increasingly fraught debate in our state. A few weeks ago WUFT reported that early in February Governor Ron DeSantis, while visiting The Villages, said, “Whose priorities are you looking out for? We’re looking out for our parents and grandparents here in Florida. There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen.”
In decrying the steps taken by other states, DeSantis gets it deadly wrong. “Senior” and “prisoner” are not mutually exclusive statuses. Grandparents can be, and are, detained by the criminal legal system in Florida. In fact, Florida ranks among the states with the largest aging incarcerated population.
Beyond incorrectly framing these demographics as dichotomous, effective vaccine distribution schedules are tied to risk management, not ideological conceptions of worthiness. Data from scholars at Johns Hopkins University demonstrates people incarcerated in US prisons have 5.5 times higher COVID-19 case rate and a 3 time higher death rate from COVID-19 than the general population. Congregate living bears risk. Social distancing is difficult, if not impossible, in a cage. Rampant overcrowding exacerbates the threat. Quarantining and isolation within jails and prisons takes the form of placing incarcerated people in solitary confinement, a brutal tactic typically deployed as a torturous punishment that has well-recorded deleterious effects on mental health.
As anyone who has been incarcerated or has experienced a loved one being incarcerated knows, though jails and prisons are spaces of confinement, their networks are linked to communities on the outside. People flow in and out through bond, parole, and acquittal. Correctional officers and other institutional staff present an immediate and daily opportunity for transmission across the walls. Given that vaccinated people may still be carriers of the virus, inoculating staff alone (which is not currently scheduled) would not be sufficient.
Incarcerated people are friends, neighbors, family members, and, most essentially, human beings with inherent dignity. Intentionally leaving human beings vulnerable to an air-borne disease that kills and whose longitudinal health impacts are still emerging is, simply put, cruel and unusual punishment. Adding to the concern is Florida’s established history of denying incarcerated people access to medical care. Fears about healthcare access were only affirmed by the recent Florida Model Jail Standards decision on February 1 to let jails continue monitoring themselves, including Medical Inspections.
Vaccine distribution is not predestined; its path is the consequence of a series of policy decisions made by our elected officials. DeSantis’ administration has chosen to pit Florida residents, incarcerated or free, against each other to distract from his failures. He is transparently carving out an electoral coalition for a future campaign by dividing and then granting some Floridians recognition of their fear and pain while denying others’. Even FL Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch acknowledges the need. DeSantis should approve Secretary Inch’s request to incorporate incarcerated people in the state vaccination priority schedule. If they won’t #FreeThemAll, doing so is the bare minimal fulfillment of their duties to our communities.