Opinion: The ethics of prisoner vaccination
If we could imagine a line of all the Americans who desire the coronavirus vaccine, where in line are those who are imprisoned? Are they to make up the rear? After healthy and young Americans? Would they stand in the front? Before elders or individuals with pre-existing conditions?
As with any philosophical application of interest, the issue of vaccinating prisoners presents itself with no clear-cut answer.
My primary purpose with this essay is not to take a definitive stance but to propose a perspective that inspires questions and thought in the reader’s mind. I feel that arguments and observations on prisoners’ treatment during the pandemic have been in effect swept under the rug, despite being quite significant.
In our home state, reporting indicates that the state has adopted a vaccination protocol that first plans to vaccinate prison workers before prisoners. Still, with no clear statement nor public directive from Gov. Gregg Abbott’s administration, the state has essentially put off the problem of planning for prisoner immunizations.
Next door, New Mexico has placed prisoners at the top of their priority list. Simultaneously, other states like Colorado drew heat for a draft vaccination proposal that prioritized prisoners over seniors. The whole situation is controversial.
On the one hand, prisoners are confined to diminutive quarters surrounded by plenty of people.
On the other hand, in a similar nature, individuals in nursing homes are confined by limited square footage. The same is also the case for families taking care of disabled loved ones, the homeless living in shelters, and low-income families that live densely in small apartments.
Based on the likelihood of spread, these scenarios are too similar to practically distinguish. However, there may be another way to prioritize groups ethically.
There have been multiple moral frameworks proposed for a vaccine rollout plan, such as frameworks centered on returning to normalcy as quickly as possible or focused on equality and fairness. The one ethical framework with the most coherency, though, would be to prioritize saving as many lives as possible.
COVID-19 data shows that age plays a significant factor in complications with the disease. In fact, age is much more of a risk in COVID than pre-existing conditions. As such, a coherent ethical framework interested in saving as many lives as possible would first prioritize immunizing all senior-aged citizens, incarcerated or not. After this, those with pre-existing conditions should be prioritized, incarcerated or not.
In addition, we could reasonably argue that society should also prioritize vaccinating correction workers because they constantly leave and enter isolated prisons. It’s a convincing argument. Inoculating them could possibly—though we are not yet certain—reduce transmission from workers bringing the virus from outside the prison.
Perhaps prioritizing saving as many lives seems commonsensical and straightforward, but neither Texas nor New Mexico’s plans constantly hold this principle.
In New Mexico, all prisoners, even younger prisoners, are placed in the same priority level as senior citizens. In Texas, the opposite is true. The state is vaccinating senior citizens but not senior-aged prisoners. You may find one policy to be more desirable than the other. Either way, neither the plan of Texas nor New Mexico is consistently adhering to an overarching ethical standard.
Under this ethical framework, one can argue that the COVID risks from age and pre-existing conditions exist for all people without regard to whether they are incarcerated or not. It is difficult to base a vaccine rollout on the likelihood of spread; recall the comparison between the ease of spread in prison to a homeless shelter, for example.
Yet, suppose a vaccine protocol prioritizes risk associated with age above all else. In that case, we are protecting our most vulnerable regardless of the situation they find themselves in.
You may disagree with this framework. As I said, this issue is interesting because its morality is very complex and without a clear answer. While a framework of saving as many lives as possible might be the most straightforward, coherent protocol, like any philosophy, it is subject to objections of pragmatism and fairness. It’s complex.
But regardless of complexity, the issue is real all the same, and concerned prisoners and their families deserve to know what exactly is the state’s plan for protecting them from the Coronavirus.
We must remember that the state must ensure high hygienic standards for our prison systems, with or without vaccinations allotments. As the public, we have an obligation to our prisoners as we have responsibilities to other citizens. Let’s remember that prisons are meant to be correctional facilities, not just punishment centers and certainly not disease vectors.
This pandemic has been rough on all of us; we all want it to be over sooner rather than later. Amid this crisis, we must not let important issues that perhaps don’t affect us personally slip away from our collective concern. In reality, as we’ve all come to know, we’re in this together.