Prisoners Should Be Prioritised for the COVID Vaccine

Lauren Davison makes the case for why prisoners should be prioritised for the COVID vaccine and why we need more evidenced-based discourse on the subject.

Since the long-awaited news of vaccines being approved, there has been much debate about who should be among the first to receive it. Most people have differing views, beyond the obvious groups of the elderly and clinically vulnerable. Last week, MP for Coventry South, Zara Sultana, provoked a barrage of faux Tory outrage for daring to suggest prisoners should be a priority group for vaccination. 

So much so, that a certain 2019 intake Tory MP decided to create a Twitter poll (which backfired spectacularly) in order to dehumanise prisoners. But Sultana is actually correct in her analysis. If we’re vaccinating high-risk groups such as the elderly and clinically vulnerable, that framework of risk needs to be extended to populations who are equally vulnerable to infection. That includes prisoners and prison staff. 

Is it a popular stance, in a nation which has a tendency to view those in our prisons as sub-human? No. Does it actually make sense from an epidemiological perspective? Absolutely. The problem is, many people have a tendency to view prisons as entirely detached institutions, far-removed from our communities and local areas. They aren’t. An outbreak in a prison can not only be devastating to those living and working within it (especially with an ageing prison population), but it also has ramifications for the areas around it. 

Latest figures show us that 1 in 10 prison staff are currently infected - a total of around 1380 workers. They are working on the frontline, just like those in other public services, but seem to be forgotten about. Bear in mind that prisoners are completely dependent on prison staff. This means that there is very little ability for prison staff to socially distance, given that they often have to restrain prisoners in their care. In the last week, prison infections are up 46% and 76 prisons are now experiencing outbreaks. This will undoubtedly create a problem for the surrounding communities.

It’s worth remembering that prison staff don’t live onsite - many of them live in the local areas, send their kids to local schools and go to the supermarket just like everyone else. If they are working in highly infected prisons, and then carrying the infections outside, it could have a hugely detrimental impact on a local area’s ability to suppress infection rates. 

Prisoners reside in conditions that, even without a pandemic, are conducive to poor health outcomes. Overcrowding, poor staffing levels and inability to self-isolate, as well as high turnover when prisoners are moved between sites all exacerbate the risk of infection. We already know that those who end up in prison are more likely to come from marginalised groups in society. Prisoners are also being released during this pandemic, and are finding themselves homeless. Again, this impacts badly on their ability to self isolate if they’ve been in a prison with high rates of COVID. 

It’s on us, as Leftists, to advocate for our prison population - regardless of whether we agree with their actions. If we’re serious about a society where everyone is treated decently and humanely, it does mean having difficult conversations. We must be prepared to do that, even if it doesn’t make us popular to do so. Sometimes advocating for what’s just, matters more than appeasing those with punitive views. 

All too often, emotion and moralistic judgements seep into the discourse around the Criminal Justice system. Healthcare is not a reward to be given to those whose circumstances and decisions we approve of - especially during a pandemic when we all need to work together to get infection rates down. Rather than viewing the debate through a prism of “deservingness”, we need to look at the cold, hard facts. We need less populist rhetoric and faux outrage, and more evidence-based discourse.


Lauren Davison is a Criminologist with a specialist interest in researching prisons, social harm, and inequality in the Justice System. She is a co-founder of the newly created Young Fabians Criminal Justice Network, and is the Co-Chair of Open Labour's Justice Reform working group! She Tweets at @l_d1995x

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