Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU, said, “Prisons and jails are just petri dishes for the coronavirus.” She added, “We need to reduce incarceration rates and free up people who pose no threat to society so more people are alive to receive the vaccine when it becomes available.”
But in Massachusetts, as in other parts of the country, efforts to reduce the number of people behind bars have slowed – mainly through the release of those in custody. And the numbers have risen again: As of December 7, Massachusetts had 4,306 inmates in custody, more than 4,194 detained in early April.
Although the state has a process of granting medical parole, many inmates with chronic illnesses that would put them at risk for serious Covid-19 do not qualify.
“You must be terminally ill or permanently disabled within 18 months of death,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners ‘Legal Services in Massachusetts, an organization that defends prisoners’ rights and advocates the least restrictive detention.
The organization represents a 78-year-old inmate who was denied medical parole last spring despite suffering from heart disease and chronic lung disease and reliant on supplemental oxygen.
There is no guarantee that offering the vaccine to prisoners will end the epidemic behind walls, several experts noted.
It will be difficult just to get the cans to the prisoners. Prisons do not have the ultra-cold refrigerators needed to store the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine and are often located in remote areas. Tracking patients to make sure they receive both doses will also be challenging – inmates are driving in and out of jails and prisoners are frequently being transferred.