ACLU of Alaska urges priority access to COVID-19 vaccine for prisoners, prison staff

The organization says incarcerated individuals are vulnerable to infection, poor outcomes during pandemic
COVID-19 Updates
COVID-19 Updates(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 7:18 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is advocating for prisoners in Alaska to be priority recipients in the next round of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

“Similar to other congregate settings, people living in prison face a high risk of contracting, becoming seriously ill and dying from the virus,” ACLU of Alaska Advocacy Director Michael Garvey wrote in a letter sent this week to the Alaska Vaccine Allocation Advisory Committee.

The vaccine advisory committee holds its next meeting on Monday, Dec. 28 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., during which it will take public comment on phase 1b of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Alaska’s fourth inmate to succumb to COVID-19 or complications from the illness died Tuesday, the same day Garvey sent the letter. The Department of Corrections described the inmate as a 60-year-old man with underlying health conditions who was transferred to Mat-Su Regional Hospital on Dec. 2.

Corrections facilities across the state have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks in recent months. Nearly 80 percent of the inmate population at the Bethel Correctional Facility acquired the virus, according to Dr. Ellen Hodges, Chief of Staff for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Earlier this week, Sarah Gallagher, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Corrections, told Alaska’s News Source that of 211 inmates, 55 had active COVID-19 cases. To date, 187 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility, Gallagher said.

At the beginning of the month, more than a third of the 1,300 inmates at the Goose Creek Correctional Facility in Wasilla had an active infection, according to a Dec. 1 press release from the Department of Corrections. When recovered cases were included in the count, total case counts showed the virus had infected more than half the population of the facility.

On Wednesday, the department’s DOC COVID-19 Tracker showed 1,905 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

All four inmate deaths occurred among individuals in their 60s and 70s who experienced underlying health conditions, according to the department. One of the men, a 78-year-old who’d been housed at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, had not been sentenced.

Megan Edge, communication director for the ACLU of Alaska, spoke with Alaska’s News Source about why the ACLU is pushing for inmates to have access to vaccines.

“These are four thousand people who, regardless of if they’re sentenced or pretrial, have a right to rehabilitation. None of them were served a death sentence. They deserve the basic health care that you and I deserve,” Edge said in an interview Wednesday.

In addition to living in crowded facilities, Edge said some inmates are unable to access basic sanitation products. Because prison staff interact with prisoners and sometimes move between facilities, the ACLU of Alaska argues those front-line corrections personnel should also be prioritized for access to the vaccine.

Edge said safety precautions within corrections facilities have compounded the pandemic’s negative effects on incarcerated individuals. Isolation and the loss of rehabilitative interventions make an already challenging situation worse, she said.

“For most of the year, prisoners have not had any programming. They haven’t seen their families. Their families are dying of COVID. Their kids are graduating. High school babies are turning into toddlers. You know, we’ve got Alaska Native people who have been in really no contact with their culture or their elders or their communities, and all of those people are going to be released back into our community. But now, if you release them today — we obviously support that because of the overcrowding problem — but the reality is their lives are going to be that much harder. Their success reintegrating back into our community is going to be that much more strained because they’ve essentially been in long-term lockdown since the end of February, beginning of March,” Edge said.

Because there is not enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone in the state, the state has to make decisions about who should have access to it first. As more vaccines become available, conversations are ongoing about who should be next in line. Among the priorities has been preventing deaths and protecting Alaska’s health care system.

“You know, we do recognize that the vaccine allocation and distribution process is going to present a tremendous challenge. But a vaccine distribution plan is not going to be fair or equitable if it fails to address the huge disparity that this is caused in our prison system, not just medically speaking, but a lot of other collateral ways,” Edge said.

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