Incarcerated People, Not Just Guards, Should be First in Line for COVID Vaccine

 In General

The union representing guards at Cook County Jail is calling for their members to be first in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, yet has made no similar calls for the vaccination of people who are incarcerated. This exclusive focus on guards is misguided and flies in the face of National Academy of Science recommendations that incarcerated people be among the first to receive the vaccine. Since April, eight people incarcerated in Cook County Jail have died from the virus and hundreds more have been infected. Right now, there are more people confirmed positive for COVID-19 in Cook County Jail (350 people) than at the height of the spring infections (307 people). This is an emergency.

The cramped and unsanitary conditions inside Cook County Jail (CCJ) make it impossible to social distance. People in CCJ have continued to report irregular distribution of masks and difficulty accessing sanitation and cleaning supplies. Moreover, incarcerated people are forced to come into close contact with potentially contagious guards who have consistently refused to wear masks properly or at all, both inside and outside of the jail. While releasing people incarcerated in Cook County Jail is the most reliable way to save lives, it is essential that anyone who remains in the jail be first in line for the vaccine.

Since guards and other staff are a primary path for the virus’s entry to the jail, it is important that they too receive early access to the vaccine. It is unquestionably the lives of incarcerated people, however, that are at the greatest risk. Guards and other jail staff have the agency to access COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies at will. When they experience symptoms or have tested positive for the virus, they can take steps to mitigate spread, including isolating at home until they are well. The guards’ freedom of movement and access to testing stands in stark contrasts to that of people who are incarcerated. People incarcerated in Cook County Jail are frequently not tested after having been exposed to COVID-19 and cannot quarantine when they fear they have been exposed to the virus. By the time people who are incarcerated receive a positive test result and are removed from their division, it is often too late to prevent the disease from spreading. As a result of these egregious disparities in access to safety during the pandemic, twice as many people incarcerated in Cook County Jail have died from COVID-19 infection compared to the guards. 

People in jail or prison are four times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as the general population and twice as likely to die from it, according to the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice. While their heightened risk alone should be motivation enough to grant them priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine, it also bears noting that they present a much higher risk of transmitting the virus beyond the facilities where they are caged due to the number of people coming in and out of the jail everyday. This makes the current uncontrolled spread inside the jail a threat to the health and well-being of every Cook County resident. Finally, the Cook County Sheriff and all County elected officials have an ethical and legal duty to protect the health and well-being of people inside the jail due to their status as prisoners.

Take Action: Call on Cook County’s State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Sheriff Tom Dart to demand a mass release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail to save lives and demand that those who are kept in the jail’s custody are universally vaccinated as soon as possible:

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