Located in Canon City, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, shown here in a Dec. 9, 2020, photo, is the state’s oldest prison. Built in 1871, it preceded the state’s admission to the Union by five years. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis isn’t listening. So far he’s refusing to implement widespread vaccine distribution in prisons in phases 1b or 2 of Colorado’s distribution schedule — despite prisons being one of the settings hardest hit by COVID-19 in the state. 

There’s a consensus among many experts that people in prison should be prioritized for vaccination the same as prison staff. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infectious disease experts nationwide, and our own Colorado Department of Health and Environmental Affairs all have urged prioritizing people in prison as best for public health. 

At least 30 states have prison vaccine plans in their Phase 1 or 2. The reasoning is obvious: They are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and suffering the worst of its impact, so vaccination is urgent in prisons like other congregate environments. 

David Maxted

Because the virus spreads in and out of prisons, a prison vaccine plan will also end the pandemic more quickly for all of us. Everyone benefits.

Prisoners live in crowded settings where distancing is impossible and conditions are ideal for infection. That’s why 15 of the largest 20 outbreaks in Colorado erupted in jails and prisons. A report from the Colorado Health Institute, updated Jan. 31, said 16,177 COVID-19 cases have been reported at Colorado correctional and detention facilities — more than half of all people incarcerated — with 32 deaths. 

The pandemic has also worsened the harms caused by prisons, keeping people locked down without programming, without contact with loved ones, living in constant terror of infection. Widespread prison vaccination would improve public safety by returning prisons nearer to normalcy so that rehabilitation can occur.

A comprehensive prison vaccine plan would also help achieve racial equity in vaccine distribution. As the CHI report says, addressing COVID-19 in prisons isn’t only a public health issue, “it’s also an issue of equity.” 

Black, Latinx, and Native American people are all unequally represented in our prisons arising from historic inequities which continue to plague our legal system. Inside prison and out, COVID-19 has unequally struck communities of color.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

A prison vaccine plan ensuring equitable distribution should be a no-brainer for Gov. Polis. This is a moment of national reckoning with systemic racism. All the governor  has to do is follow public health guidance and the vast majority of states and he’ll be on the right side of this issue.

Yet in a politicized decision garnering national infamy, Gov. Polis overruled public health officials and terminated the prison vaccine plan. Why did he ignore public health to do this? I sadly note that Polis announced his opposition to a prison vaccination plan after a right-wing prosecutor, former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, baselessly criticized it. The governor’s stance devalues lives—equity be damned, public health be damned, and science be damned.

This dubious decision comes on top of Gov. Polis’ refusal to reduce prison populations through expanded special-needs parole, the use of clemency, or other measures. Governors across the nation have reduced their prison populations by thousands to save lives during the pandemic. Once again, he is out of touch. Not even the Redemption Campaign including activism by Denver Broncos has spurred him to act.

Advocates continue to call for a prison vaccine plan. The CHI report urgently recommends that the governor act now. A coalition of lawyers and the ACLU have appealed to the Supreme Court seeking court intervention. 

Recently, a federal judge ordered the governor of Oregon to vaccinate people in the state’s prisons immediately, finding that the failure to do so violates the constitutional rights of those incarcerated. 

Gov. Polis’ inaction is not only bad for public health and will cause racial inequity, it violates civil rights. Still, he has refused to budge.

The governor’s stance is puzzling. He has acknowledged demands for racial justice and dignified treatment of those incarcerated. Coloradans are left to wonder: Is it all lip service? Does he care about people in prison at all?

There is still time for Gov. Polis to do the right thing and implement a prioritized prison vaccine plan. He must stop the dangerous political game he is playing with the lives of those incarcerated. Refusing to implement a prison vaccine plan now will exacerbate COVID-19 suffering and its unequal impact on communities of color. 

Coloradans demand policies which value lives and achieve racial equity. If Gov. Polis fails to rise to the demand of this moment, neither history nor the families and communities impacted will let him forget it.

David Maxted is a Denver civil rights and criminal lawyer at Maxted Law LLC who, along with the ACLU and others, has been in litigation against Gov. Polis regarding his response to COVID-19 in state prisons.

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