Virus Outbreak Prison Business

A security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility. 

The decision to put health workers at the front of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine was met with near universal acceptance.

Why not protect those who have worked tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to keep others safe? After that, this complicated vaccine rollout is bound to run into snags and raise questions. So far there have been national reports of too many vaccines sitting on shelves and questions about the City Health Department’s allotment. Overall, Missouri vaccinated more than 100,000 people by the first week of January, which was a good start for this state.

In terms of priority, Missouri’s broader decisions seem to make sense. Health workers and long-term care facility residents go first, followed by high-risk individuals and those over the age of 65, first responders and essential workers.

Next on that list you’ll find prisoners, the homeless and then all Missouri residents.

In Kansas, some are questioning whether prison inmates have been placed too high on the list. Kansas prisoners are set to be prioritized for the next round of vaccinations. In that state, prisoners will receive the vaccination along with the elderly, critical workers such as police and those who work in meatpacking and child care.

“We’re going to have a lot of discussions,” Ron Ryckman Jr., the speaker of the Kansas House, told the Associated Press.

In Kansas, maybe others deserve a chance to get a vaccine before inmates. But that decision should be based on an analysis of the costs vs. the benefits rather than a punitive action against those who broke the law. There are good reasons for vaccinating prisoners.

For starters, the state or the county pays for an inmate’s medical care, so a vaccine might be a preventative measure that reduces more costly emergency or primary care in the long run. The second is that inmates stay behind bars, but the state corrections officers and county deputies do not. They go home and interact with their families and others in the community.

Finally, there was talk last spring, during the initial wave of coronavirus cases, that some inmates would need to be released as a safety and humanitarian measure. A better solution, one that’s both safe for those on the outside and humane for those on the inside, would be to get vaccinations to these inmates in a reasonable time period. That way they can stay behind bars where they belong.

Maybe it needs to be before a certain group, maybe after. That’s a legitimate debate for policymakers. But there’s no question that getting vaccines to prison inmates in an expedited fashion doesn’t just benefit them, it benefits all of us in the long run.