To use the example of COVID-19 vaccine prioritization for incarcerated workers to call attention to the need to prioritize incarcerated workers’ health.
From November to December 2020, we searched publicly available information (e.g. Department Of Corrections websites and press releases) for 53 US prison systems, including all states, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Puerto Rico. Coders reviewed if states had prison labor policies, if states had COVID-19 specific prison labor policies, the location of work, industries both pre- and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the scope of work, and hourly wage. Findings were compared to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s occupational vaccine prioritization recommendations.
Every facility has incarcerated individuals working in some capacity with some resuming prison labor operations to pre-pandemic levels. All but one prison system has off-site work locations for their incarcerated population and many incarcerated workers have resumed their off-site work release assignments. Additionally, every state has incarcerated workers whose job assignments are considered frontline essential workers (e.g. firefighters). In at least five states, incarcerated workers are participating in frontline health roles that put them at higher risk of acquiring COVID-19. Yet, no state followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended vaccination plan for its incarcerated population given their incarcerated workers’ essential worker status.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that incarcerated people be prioritized for vaccination primarily due to the risk present in congregate style prison and jail facilities. Furthermore, our review found that many incarcerated people perform labor that should be considered “essential”, which provides another reason why they should have been among the first in line for COVID-19 vaccine allocation. These findings also highlight the need for incarcerated workers’ health to be prioritized beyond COVID-19.