Vaccination plus Decarceration — Stopping Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons

New England Journal of Medicine
April 29, 2021 Vol. 384 No. 17


Vaccination plus Decarceration — Stopping Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons
Benjamin A. Barsky, J.D., M.B.E., Eric Reinhart, B.A., Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D., and Salmaan Keshavjee, M.D., Ph.D.
… Stopping the epidemic in jails and prisons is vital for protecting staff and incarcerated people; it is also critical for curbing the spread of Covid-19 into surrounding communities, especially Black and Latinx communities that are disproportionately affected by jail- and prison-linked coronavirus spread.1 Furthermore, as we become aware of an increasing range of SARS-CoV-2 variants, we face greater urgency to disrupt the ideal environment that current carceral conditions provide for viral mutations that could undermine the efficacy of available vaccines and threaten health far beyond American borders.
Vaccination of incarcerated people is important for changing this dynamic, but it is not enough. We believe that it must be coupled with large-scale decarceration to increase the real-world effectiveness of vaccination, disrupt wide-ranging viral transmission chains, and turn off the epidemiologic pump that puts the health of all at risk from mass incarceration.
Decarceration strategies can guide decisions made by a range of actors who wield power to change current conditions, including federal and state legislators, state and local law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, mayors, governors, the U.S. attorney general, and the president of the United States. We believe the medical community has a parallel responsibility to ensure that science is heard and applied. On the grounds of scientific evidence and our ethical responsibility to protect the vulnerable and the public at large, we can use our influence to demand that policymakers implement decarceration alongside priority vaccination in jails and prisons.