After a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Illinois prisons sickened thousands of workers and inmates, the state will begin vaccinating both groups in the coming week — a plan that drew praise from advocates but provoked the ire of some lawmakers who argue criminals should not be prioritized.
The first doses will be administered at the minimum-security East Moline Correctional Center in Rock Island, where nearly half the inmate population has tested positive for COVID-19 since March and four men died of related illnesses, state officials said.
The state will continue distributing the vaccine throughout the Illinois Department of Corrections beginning Feb. 22 with the goal of having the nearly 29,000 inmates and more than 12,000 workers receive their first and second doses by mid-April.
The plan has not come without political wrangling. Pointing to national public health guidelines and studies noting the high risk for infection and death among inmates, advocates for prisoners’ rights in Illinois have pushed to have incarcerated people vaccinated with the same urgency as others who live in congregate settings.
But with senior citizens and essential workers already eligible for vaccinations still struggling to land appointments, some Republican lawmakers have cried foul, especially about the idea of vaccinating younger, healthy inmates.
Citing complaints from constituents unable to schedule their shots, Sen. Terri Bryant from downstate Murphysboro has called the state’s IDOC vaccination plan unconscionable. A retired 20-year corrections administrator, Bryant noted that some seniors in assisted-living facilities still are waiting to be vaccinated.
“I am not advocating at all that prisons not be vaccinated,” Bryant said in an interview. “I’m asking for equal treatment. So if you are 20 years old and otherwise healthy on the street and you can’t be vaccinated, then you shouldn’t be vaccinated in a prison if you’re 20 years old and otherwise healthy.”
Illinois Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, has urged Gov. J.B. Pritzker to make it a priority to vaccinate medically vulnerable people under the age of 65. He said the governor’s recent decision to make this group eligible helps, but McConchie said he remained concerned that prisoners have a guaranteed place in line while others scramble for appointments.
“It’s very difficult to explain to constituents,” McConchie told the Tribune.
Like other states, Illinois has struggled to contain COVID-19 in its prisons. At the start of the pandemic, the epicenter for IDOC infections was Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, which accounted for most of the system’s positive cases from March to August.
But a second wave that hit in August spread rapidly throughout the $1.6 billion corrections system. To date, an estimated 10,500 inmates and 4,000 workers have tested positive. For both staff and inmates, that means about 1 in 3 was infected, according to state statistics.
Groups that track national coronavirus data for state and federal prisons, such as The Marshall Project, have ranked Illinois among the states with the most inmate fatalities. Nearly 90 state prisoners have died of a COVID-19 illness since March — a death toll that has nearly tripled since early November, the state’s data shows.
And one staff member — a 64-year-old nurse — has died after contracting the virus.
In addition to providing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, the corrections department long ago halted in-person visits inside facilities, imposed a staff mask mandate and restricted prisoners to their cells with few exceptions.
At the urging of advocates and a court-appointed medical monitor in a federal consent decree case, the IDOC also expanded its testing program in early December. The department has administered nearly 367,000 tests to workers and inmates since March, including a more than tenfold increase in testing over the last two months.
At a recent Facebook Live event, acting IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys said the department is working with several prisoner advocacy groups and its employees’ union to encourage participation in the vaccination program.
“Everybody is just fatigued. They’re tired. They’re scared,” Jeffreys said of the nearly yearlong fight to defeat the pandemic inside prison walls. “We all want some sense of normalcy. We cannot continue to just test our way out of this.”
More than 500 members of IDOC’s medical and mental health staff were included in the first group of people eligible to be vaccinated in Illinois. Beginning in the coming week, the rest of the IDOC staff and inmates will get their turn in line as part of second eligibility group.
State officials said local health departments will store the vaccine and transport it to correctional facilities, and the doses will be administered by medical technicians with the Illinois National Guard.
A study by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit organization with bipartisan leadership, found a higher rate of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated people than was true for the general public. The disparity was even greater after adjusting for the sex, age and race of the inmate population.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states vaccinate corrections workers and inmates at the same time when possible, and infectious disease experts at seven of the nation’s top universities in a December 2020 report urged state governments to prioritize both groups.
Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, said it makes sense to vaccinate the prison population simultaneously with staff and is a decision backed by science. He noted about 1 in 5 inmates is older than 50 and more than 50% of the inmate population has a physical or mental health condition.
“Just like people in nursing homes, they live in congregate settings, with no ability to social distance,” Mills said.
Initially, Illinois placed inmates in a later eligibility group in its vaccination plan. But federal authorities updated guidelines regarding prisons and jails in late December, which helped prompt more than 60 Illinois groups to send a letter to the governor and public health officials asking that state inmates be prioritized.
A Tribune article in December revealed the deadly toll of the pandemic’s second wave in Illinois prisons. Shortly after that, the state moved incarcerated people up in priority.
But Illinois isn’t the only state to reconsider. In the first drafts of state vaccination plans submitted to federal authorities last year, only four states placed incarcerated people early in the vaccination process.
Now, according to national groups such as the COVID Prison Project, at least 24 states and territories have included incarcerated populations in early eligibility groups. In the Midwest, Indiana has placed prisoners in a later phase. Wisconsin is still debating the issue. In Missouri, while correctional staff are prioritized, most imprisoned people will be among the last in the state to be offered a vaccine, according to the COVID Prison Project.
The Pritzker administration has said making younger Illinois residents with underlying medical issues became possible because of increased federal vaccine shipments to the state under the Biden administration and because Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine is on track for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration as soon as the end of the month.
Andrew Friend, deputy director of Illinois’ public health department’s Office of Preparedness & Response, said these developments are a sign things will get better soon for those who are eligible but still waiting to book an appointment.
There are 100 Illinois National Guard teams that eventually will be able to administer 900,000 vaccinations per week, Friend told lawmakers at the recent virtual Senate hearing. A handful of those teams will administer the vaccine to corrections staff and inmates.
The IDOC is not making vaccinations mandatory, and advocates for inmates say many prisoners may be wary.
“Given our long history of medical abuse and neglect of Black people and incarcerated people, people in prison are understandably skeptical,” said Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project. “Building trust through education and an active response to questions and concerns is an important first step to getting our prison population vaccinated.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 is partnering in IDOC’s educational campaign to encourage prison workers in the union to be vaccinated.
“That’s our way back to normal,” said Anders Lindall, AFSCME Council 31 spokesman. “That’s the way to protect ourselves, our families, our co-workers and our communities.”
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