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Legislatively Speaking

Bill on COVID-19 Shortsighted

Lena C. Taylor

I am going to say something that is likely unpopular, but here it goes. Incarcerated people are still people. While some inmates have committed monstrous crimes, as a state we have decided we’re against the death penalty. Other folks that populate our state prisons are there for a variety of reasons, some of which are non-violent offenses, parole violations, etc. Either way, these people are the responsibility of the state of Wisconsin, while in our custody.

It is with this obligation, that Senate Bill 8 presents a problem for me. The bill was circulated in mid-January and directs DHS not to prioritize an incarcerated person for vaccination before the individual would otherwise be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination under the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ Updated Interim Recommendation for Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine. Further, the bill directs DHS not to prioritize incarcerated persons within an allocation phase.

So, what does all that mean? In short, if you are sick or in a high-risk group, while incarcerated, you are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine with everyone else similarly situated in the general public. Even then, there is a caveat. An incarcerated person is basically the last to get the vaccine, even when they are eligible per the vaccine phase guidelines. If you are an inmate with no serious health conditions and are a younger person, the bill directs that, despite guidance by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, you have a problem.

The rationale offered by some of the bill sponsors is that healthy young people, who happen to be incarcerated, are not in immediate risk of contracting COVID-19. After all, that’s what they said about younger adults that are not incarcerated. However, the data indicates that the group of people contracting COVID-19 at higher rates are young adults between the ages of 25-44.

If you factor in prison overcrowding, the inability of inmates to self-isolate and control who they come in contact with, and less than adequate space for social distancing etc., it really isn’t an apples to apples argument. On a deeper level, I am going to end where I started. Incarcerated people are still PEOPLE. It is convenient to trot out the example of the murderer or the rapist and push all the emotional buttons about people who have done something to end up in jail. The reality is that that doesn’t represent the overwhelming number of people that we incarcerate. In the meantime, the Department of Corrections has said that over 10,000 Wisconsin inmates have tested positive and 25 inmates have died. Bottom line, prisons are an incubator for the transmission of disease. We have a responsibility to keep the employees and incarcerated people in those facilities safe. These people are already serving their sentence and no, it wasn’t a death sentence. Period.

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