Carol Rose, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts, said, “Prisons and jails are just petri dishes for the coronavirus.” She added, “We need to reduce incarceration levels and release people who aren’t a danger to society, so more people are alive to receive the vaccine when it becomes available.”
But in Massachusetts, as in other parts of the country, efforts to reduce the number of people behind bars — largely by releasing people held in pretrial detention — have slowed. And the numbers have crept back up: As of Dec. 7, there were 4,306 inmates being held in pretrial detention in Massachusetts, exceeding the 4,194 who were being held in early April.
Though the state has a process for granting medical parole, many inmates who have chronic illnesses that would put them at risk for severe Covid-19 don’t qualify.
“You have to be terminally ill, within 18 months of dying, or permanently incapacitated,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, an organization that defends prisoners’ rights and advocates the least restrictive imprisonment.
The organization is representing a 78-year-old inmate who was denied medical parole this past spring, even though he has heart disease and chronic lung disease and is dependent on supplemental oxygen.
There is no guarantee that offering the vaccine to prisoners will end the epidemic behind walls, several experts noted.
Simply getting the doses to prisoners will be difficult. Prisons don’t have the ultracold refrigerators required to store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and are often located in remote areas. And tracking patients to ensure they receive both doses will also be challenging — inmates cycle in and out of jails, and prisoners are frequently transferred.