Vaccines are rolling out to thousands of at-risk Philadelphians in group 1A, but advocates say prison populations merit increased priority in that group given how difficult it can be to reduce spread within prisons.
The American Medical Association reported last year that incarcerated individuals were more than five times as likely to contract COVID than the national population. Terrance Alladin, a criminology professor at Lebanon Valley College, said prisons are still at least twice as likely to be impacted by COVID.
“In prisons, there’s not a lot of space for anything, and the fact that most of our prisons are overcrowded — the United States is the top incarceration nation in the world,” Alladin said. “As a result of that, we don’t have any space to put a lot of inmates.”
Alongside the cramped conditions is a history of sanitation problems and little accessibility to cleaning products in prisons and jails, making it harder to mitigate the spread of COVID.
“Again, the prior administration didn’t take it as a serious enough threat to the lives of the inmates to really do something about it until it was really late,” Alladin said.
As of Friday morning, over 160,000 Philadelphians have received the first dose of the COVID vaccine.
According to the City of Philadelphia website, there are currently more than 30 active COVID cases across the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, consisting of four county jails. Since March 2020, there have been over 1,200 cases of COVID reported among PDP inmates.
“Initially, PDP has been receiving 200 doses a week. Medically vulnerable inmates are being vaccinated first and half of the vaccine is being given to employees,” said Deanna Gamble, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney.
But due to the hospitable COVID conditions allowed by prisons and jails, some have been advocating for vaccines to be distributed in jails with greater urgency.
Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, prisons across the state have enacted lockdowns, limiting individuals’ time out of their cell. PDP’s strictest enacted lockdown only allowed for 15 minutes of free time in an attempt to minimize the spread.
But prison and jail staff members, including correctional officers and administrative staff come and go from the prison each day, introducing a high transmission risk to those inside.
“Correctional officers definitely should be getting the vaccine because that’s the only way you’re going to stop it,” said Joe Robinson, an instructor from the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “Correctional officers have to be a starting point to actually get this turned around.”
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections began vaccinating inmates at State Correctional Institutions Laurel Highlands and Muncy. Next week, incarcerated individuals at Waymart will also be vaccinated. Some congressional members questioned the prioritization of incarcerated individuals, to which Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said prisons and jails are federal long-term care facilities.